With help from Joanne Kenen
PRESSURE COOKER — The looming possibility of a national rail strike is bad news for an already fragile economy. And it’s especially bad for Democrats.
Democrats have scored some wins as of late, but an economic shock like this one — an industry estimate projects a railroad shutdown could cost $2 billion a day, threatening recovering U.S. supply chains — could put a big damper on the party’s rebounding November prospects.
The Biden administration is well aware of this. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh have sprung into action to help avoid disaster, and President Joe Biden has been working the phones today, speaking directly with companies and unions. With Biden casting himself as the “most pro-union president ever,” it’s a tricky situation as the administration seeks a deal while also showing the White House stands behind workers.
To break down the complicated politics of it all and what to watch for next, Nightly chatted over Slack with transportation reporter Tanya Snyder.
Fill us in on how we got here.
The railroads and the 13 unions that represent their workers have been working since November 2019 to agree on a new labor contract. When those talks broke down, Biden appointed a board of arbitrators — the Presidential Emergency Board — to draft a compromise, which they did last month. The railroads and most of the unions have either come to a tentative agreement or appear to be close to coming to a tentative agreement based on the PEB recommendations.
But two of the unions — the transportation division of SMART; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) — are insisting on changes to what they call draconian new work rules for engineers and conductors, like attendance policies that won’t let workers even take time to go to the doctor. They won’t accept a contract that doesn’t include those changes, and the PEB didn’t address those issues.
Why are the stakes so high?
Almost 40 percent of long-distance freight ton-miles move on rail, more than any other mode of transportation. Trucking can’t possibly absorb all of that. A work stoppage would make our previous supply chain worries look like kid stuff. It could cause shortages and raise prices. And remember, harvest season is around the corner. Rail service disruptions over the last year have already had farmers on the brink of killing off their own livestock because the grain they use to feed their animals just hasn’t arrived. Food would rot in unmoving railcars and shelves would be empty.
Not to mention the fact that commuter rail and Amtrak also run on freight lines, so there could be major disruptions to passenger rail as well.
So this could potentially spell political disaster for the Biden administration, and by extension, Democrats, with less than two months to go until Election Day.
Right. Industry groups from the Chamber of Commerce to the Consumer Brands Association to the trucking lobby to the fertilizer lobby have been calling on Congress to intervene if the unions and railroads can’t reach an agreement before this Friday, when a federally-mandated “cooling off period” ends and a strike becomes possible. Labor law works differently for railroads than other industries, and the Railway Labor Act allows Congress to intervene and mandate its own resolution if the parties can’t come to an agreement — but Congress would really rather not.
Organized labor, of course, is calling on Congress to stay out of it, because the threat to withhold their labor is the greatest leverage they have to force the employers’ hands. So Democrats are in a tough spot. No one wants a strike that would paralyze the economy, obviously, but intervening in a way that defangs labor isn’t a great look for Democrats less than two months before an election either.
It seems like the administration is taking this pretty seriously: Walsh canceled his trip to Ireland scheduled for this week to stay in talks, and other Cabinet officials are heavily involved. Do we have any read on how freaked out the White House is?
The administration has been pulling out all the stops, starting with the appointment of the Presidential Emergency Board, to resolve this.
The president has finally had a couple of big wins recently — the Inflation Reduction Act passed, gas prices are going down, infrastructure dollars are hitting the street — but all those gains could be eclipsed if the railroads shut down and the supply chain collapses.
The Biden administration is also in an interesting position here, with Biden’s pro-union push. Is it possible for administration officials to balance a deal to avert this crisis, while also showing they stand behind the workers?
That’s what they’re trying to do. They’re still pushing for a resolution between the railroads and the unions and they’re hoping Congress doesn’t have to get involved. But Congress could also pick a pro-union path — they can mandate a resolution that includes the PEB recommendations AND the changes to work rules the unions are looking for.
What should we be watching for in the lead-up to Friday’s deadline?
All eyes are on the two unions that represent engineers and conductors, SMART-TD and BLET. They can’t agree to a contract that their members won’t ratify, and their members are furious with the railroads and have been for a long time. So we’ll be looking for any concessions from the railroads that would give the workers enough of a win that they’re willing to accept an agreement.
On the Hill, we’re looking to the relevant committees to see whether they’re already working on emergency legislation to stave off a strike and what that legislation would say and what path it would take to passage.
— Trump fights back against DOJ in dispute over classified records, while DOJ approves special master: Donald Trump urged a federal judge today to keep in place her order that blocked the Justice Department from continuing its criminal investigation into the highly sensitive government records stashed in the basement of his Mar-a-Lago estate. The filing, a response to prosecutors’ warning that U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s unorthodox directive — preventing FBI investigators from accessing the files seized in their Aug. 8 search — was harming national security, urges the Trump-appointed judge to stay the course. Also in a new filing tonight, the DOJ said it approved of senior Judge Raymond Dearie, one of the candidates Trump’s legal team put forward as a special master to review the seized Mar-a-Lago documents, though many issues remain about the scope of review and pending appeal.
— Podesta-led White House team tagged to execute climate law: Biden will announce creation of a new White House team, to be led by senior adviser John Podesta, that will oversee spending of the $369 billion in climate incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act, according to an executive order obtained by POLITICO. The new office, which will collaborate with the existing White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, will have responsibility for structuring the law’s grant programs, clarifying language for tax credits and touting its economic and jobs potential.
GUN SHY — Today, Christine Lambrecht, the latest in a long line of German defense ministers with little or no military experience, made clear that Ukraine’s battlefield gains would not alter Berlin’s refusal to provide the country with much-needed battle tanks.
Lambrecht, delivering what was billed as a “landmark” address in Berlin, castigated Russia for its “horrible war of invasion” and said it was time for Germany to assume a “leadership role” in European security. Helping Ukraine to win would not appear to be part of that strategy, writes Matthew Karnitschnig.
“Berlin’s hesitation, its inaction, seriously calls into question the value and the alliance with Germany,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Der Spiegel in an interview published in the weekly’s current edition. The Polish leader, whose country has been among the most generous suppliers of arms to Ukraine, added that “numerous other government leaders in Europe” shared his view.
Welcome to ‘Radar Sweep,’ a new section from POLITICO Nightly that will track down notions from corners of the internet that might not make daily headlines.
THE HOME FRONT — The news from Ukraine’s counteroffensive looks good. Reports are that they are pushing Russian troops back, in part thanks to Western aid and weapons. But their economy is in a deep hole. In his newsletter Chartbook, Adam Tooze breaks down exactly why “there is every reason to fear both a social and a political crisis… which will massively compound Kyiv’s difficulties in continuing the war regardless of its progress on the battlefield.”
MASK ON, MASK OFF — The sign in Lisbon about mandatory mascara initially threw me, until I remembered it meant “mask,” not makeup. But when I looked around, I saw a lot more people wearing mascara than masks, Joanne Kenen, Commonwealth Fund journalist-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, emails Nightly.
My family had, for us, an unprecedented amount of far-flung travel in late summer. My older son and son-in-law were vacationing in Spain (where they had the good fortune to be related by marriage to a Valencia condo). My younger son was in Denmark, beginning a semester abroad that I hoped would make up for some of the stresses of his first two Covid-infused years of college. My husband was attending one nephew’s wedding in Israel; I went to another nephew’s wedding in the charming town of Sintra, Portugal. After living through the United States’ million-plus deaths, low vaccination rates and deep political divides over the pandemic, my family (and I think most of my friends and colleagues) had assumed Europeans and Israelis were much more diligent about masking during a weakened but still present pandemic than we are here at home.
But our WhatsApp family group immediately blew up. “No one wears masks here,” reported the Spain contingent. “Maybe one percent of people are wearing masks here — and most of them are wearing them under their nose,” said my husband from Israel. “None here,” chimed in the student in Copenhagen (who was also sending us photos of herring). He wasn’t even able to find a rapid test on or off campus. When he wanted to check out a sore throat a week later, he had to take a train to Sweden to buy tests. (He’s negative.)
In Portugal, it was a little more complicated. Masks are still required on public transit. And where there’s a conductor or a driver present, that rule is enforced and respected. You can’t even get on a bus without a mask — I saw bus drivers leave people at the stop if they were bare-faced. Everyone wears them on intercity trains — their (better) version of Amtrak. But on the Lisbon subway and small regional train lines — where masks are mandated but there’s no one on board to enforce the rules — there were only a handful of people wearing masks, roughly the same as I’d see around D.C. In stores and at tourist sites, masks were almost nonexistent. (So were barriers and handrails, but that’s another story.) And when people do wear them in Portugal, they use surgical masks, not the more protective N95s.
Spain, Portugal and Denmark have significantly higher vaccination rates than we do; Israel, which got off to a great start, is more comparable to our rate (a tad lower, according to Our World in Data, or several percentage points higher, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker). That, combined with the generally greater social solidarity around the pandemic than we have had, gives them more protection, less death and less severe disease. But they too face ongoing variants, ongoing disruption. And like us — they’ve had enough of masks. Though not, it seemed, of mascara.
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