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OPINION

Can Marty Walsh get his union cred back on track with rail workers?

What happens next about sick time is important, and Walsh knows it.

President Biden shook hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh after he signed bipartisan legislation averting a rail workers strike at the White House on Dec. 2.Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Railroad strike averted — but it’s still a bumpy ride for President Biden, who calls himself “Union Joe” and promised to be “the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”

It’s also slightly awkward for US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former Boston mayor who worked himself up from construction laborer to union leader before entering politics. The labor secretary I touted as a working-class hero who helped negotiate the initial deal that headed off a railroad strike turned into one who watched 4 out of 12 unions reject that deal, forcing Biden to ask Congress to impose it — like it or not. And while the final product includes a significant increase in pay and benefits, when it comes to sick leave, it basically leaves rail workers where they were before — with no dedicated sick day, paid or not. However, they were granted one personal day.

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What happens next is important, and Walsh knows it. “The conversation around sick time is not over,” he told me. “We have to explore different opportunities. First and foremost, we have to have a conversation with the rail companies.” The hope is that such talks could lead to a voluntary offering of sick leave to workers, and at least one rail company is reportedly thinking about it. But that’s a long way from doing it.

Instead, what about having Biden issue an executive order that extends sick leave to rail workers? As a Globe editorial points out, former president Barack Obama signed such an order in 2015, requiring all federal contractors to provide employees with up to seven days of paid sick leave. Why not expand it to rail workers? That may not be as simple as it sounds, according to the Biden administration. Besides, a future president could reverse it, and it does not address the broader need for a national sick-leave policy. To that end, Walsh suggests trying for a bipartisan effort to accomplish that goal. He said it could involve Senators Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts; along with Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Marco Rubio of Florida.

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Those three Republicans — plus three others — voted with Democrats to give seven days of paid sick leave to 115,000 rail workers who threatened to strike without it. However, because it could not get 60 votes, the amendment failed. Relaunching a sick-leave-for-all proposal “would be a great show of bipartisan support,” said Walsh.

It would. Yet while there have been some rare but welcome bursts of recent bipartisan activity in Washington, it’s still hard to imagine Democrats and Republicans working together to get behind a national sick-leave policy. If anything, the support from some Republicans for sick leave for rail workers highlights how much the labor vote is in play. Shortly before the sick-leave vote, Hawley tweeted, “GOP wants to be a working class party, or should want to. We’re about to have our first test vote — with the workers or with Biden.” After that vote, Cruz fist-bumped Sanders, who sponsored it. But would Hawley and Cruz work with Sanders on legislation that promotes sick leave for the good of everyone, not just for their own political good? I’ll believe it when I see it happen.

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Overall, union households supported Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election. But Republicans are rededicated to peeling those votes away, and Biden just handed them an opening.

In the interest of keeping the trains and economy running, Biden chose management over labor. And on Biden’s behalf, Walsh went along with that value judgment. He stood at Biden’s side as he signed into law an agreement that had been rejected by nearly half the nation’s rail workers. That law not only denied those workers the right to sick leave, it also took away their right to strike.

Now, Walsh will have to work really hard behind the scenes to get rail workers what they want and deserve. He and Biden have a lot riding on where this train ends up.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.