businessEconomy

Biden preparing to seek congressional intervention to prevent rail strike

The White House is holding off on a public announcement of the president’s intentions until his aides are certain they have the votes to pass legislation.

President Joe Biden plans to call on Congress to act to stop a looming shutdown of the nation’s freight railroads, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The White House is holding off on a public announcement of the president’s intentions until his aides are certain they have the votes to pass legislation, according to the person, who has been briefed on the plan but requested anonymity to discuss it.

A rail strike could wreak havoc on the U.S. economy by crippling supply chains, disrupting passenger rail travel and preventing key materials from reaching water treatment plants. Texas has more miles of rail and more railroad workers than any state in the country.

Unions and railroads have until Dec. 9 to avoid a strike after some labor groups voted down a White House-brokered agreement. A negotiated agreement now appears unlikely. Congress can intervene to stop a strike under federal law.

The White House declined to comment on the president’s plans. But it signaled it won’t let a shutdown of freight rail lines cripple the economy, with a spokeswoman noting that Congress has repeatedly intervened in the past to prevent work stoppages.

“The president is directly involved in the process and has been engaged with his team and also has had conversations with members of Congress on this particular issue, in case resolving the issue falls to them as it has 18 times in the last 60 years,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.

The Washington Post reported Biden’s intention to call on Congress to intervene in the dispute. Jean-Pierre declined to confirm that report.

Four out of 12 unions that represent the majority of U.S. freight railroad workers have voted down tentative agreements, brokered by the White House, citing frustration over lack of paid sick time and punitive attendance policies. Railroad workers do not receive paid sick days and are punished for taking time off. Carriers have said that their attendance policies are necessary to keep the rail lines staffed, and that they allow workers to take time off when needed, by using paid vacation time.

All 12 unions need to vote individually to ratify their contracts. If one union moves to strike, all of the unions – which represent more than 115,000 rail workers – would probably move in solidarity, triggering an industry-wide work stoppage.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats signaled that they were waiting for guidance from the White House, although in recent days, party leaders privately have discussed legislative contingency plans.

It remains unclear what kind of action Congress would take, but it could impose a version of an agreement recommended by a Biden-appointed board earlier this year that was rejected by the unions. Some unions have been lobbying Congress in recent weeks to add paid sick days to the deal.

Congress could also extend a cooling-off period, allowing parties to continue negotiating until they reach an agreement, or force both sides to enter arbitration, where a third-party mediator gets involved.

The U.S. Chamber of Congress and some 400 business groups, representing a wide range of industries, from meatpackers to jewelers, sent a letter to Congress on Monday saying the looming rail strike is of “grave urgency.” They called for Congress to intervene before the strike deadline if a deal is not reached to “ensure continued rail service.”

“A stoppage of rail service for any duration would be extremely damaging to American families and our economy, costing $2 billion dollars per day,” the letter said.

Tony Caldwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one of the unions that voted down the agreement, said his members will not ratify a deal unless it includes more expansive sick leave benefits. The union is asking for four paid sick days. But in the latest negotiations last week, the rail carriers “stated that they were unwilling to negotiate over” sick days, Caldwell said.

The union represents some 23,000 rail workers who fix and maintain rail infrastructure, such as signals, tracks, ballast and rail cars. They say they’ve also been affected by severe understaffing but did not receive any additional paid days off or the ability to call out sick without punishment in their contract.

Caldwell noted that his union is among the most frustrated of the 12 unions involved in negotiations. “During [the] pandemic, our members suffered the most,” Caldwell said. “They worked in large gangs of 30 to 100 men and rode in buses and the cabs of machines together. The pandemic spread through our membership like wildfire. We lost members to sickness and death. They aren’t happy with the deal because it didn’t address their main issue: sick leave.”

Meanwhile, the trade group representing the major railroads said they are pressing to find a way forward.

“We are on a finite timeline and the clock is ticking on this,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “We’re very focused on taking every step necessary to avoid a work stoppage.”

Ian Kullgren and Jordan Fabian, Bloomberg, with additional information via The Washington Post.

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