Congress divided on how to stop rail strike as disruption looms

Lawmakers are divided on how to avert a national railroad strike that would devastate an economy already plagued by high inflation.

After years of contentious contract negotiations, nearly 125,000 railway workers are allowed to strike starting Friday, setting the stage for a work stoppage that would halt nearly one-third of the nation’s cargo shipments. 

Railroads are already winding down service ahead of the deadline, blocking the flow of critical agricultural products and forcing commuter rail systems to suspend routes. 

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with negotiators all day Wednesday in a last-minute push to reach a deal. A Labor Department spokesperson said that both parties “are negotiating in good faith and have committed to staying at the table today.”

Railroads are backing a contract based on guidance from a White House-appointed board that calls for 24 percent raises over five years and back pay. Rail workers largely oppose the deal because it doesn’t address their concerns about unsafe working conditions, long hours and sick leave. 

Congress has the power to block the strike, but lawmakers were divided on whether to intervene Wednesday. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blocked a GOP resolution Wednesday afternoon that would impose the presidential board’s contract and swiftly put an end to the threat of a strike, a measure railroads and other industry groups are lobbying for. 

He cited rail workers’ complaints about the inability to get time off without the risk of penalties, even for doctor appointments or family emergencies. 

“The rail industry must agree to a contract that is fair and that is just. And if they are not prepared to do that, it is time for Congress to stand on the side of workers for a change and not just the heads of large multinational corporations,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. 

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) noted that the GOP resolution is based on contract recommendations crafted by a board appointed by President Biden. 

He said that Biden needs to clarify whether he supports the board’s guidance or Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) needs to bring the GOP resolution to the floor. 

“If we don’t have one of those two actions, then we will have done nothing and we’ll see a strike and … economic devastation,” Wicker said. 

Democrats argue that the parties should be given a chance to negotiate a deal, while Republicans say that Congress needs to take action now.  

Some Democrats have privately discussed backing a bill that would address workers’ concerns, but GOP senators indicated Wednesday that they see their resolution as the bipartisan solution. Any agreement would need the support of 60 senators to pass the upper chamber. 

Meanwhile, workers appear poised to walk out after the first rail union officially voted to strike.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said Wednesday that its 4,900 railway workers voted to reject the presidential board’s contract and authorize a strike. The union said that it would delay the strike until Sept. 29 to give labor leaders more time to negotiate.

“We look forward to continuing that vital work with a fair contract that ensures our members and their families are treated with the respect they deserve for keeping America’s goods and resources moving through the pandemic,” the union said in a statement.

The announcement suggests that several other unions that struck the same tentative agreement will likely watch their members vote it down. A recent survey from the SMART Transportation Division, one of the two largest railroad unions, found that 78 percent of workers would reject the deal in its current form. 

The American Association of Railroads estimates that a national railroad shutdown would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day. 

Freight railroads transport 75 percent of new cars and 20 percent of grain shipments. Huge amounts of packaged goods, coal, crude oil, lumber and fertilizer can only be transported by rail, and most commuter trains run on freight rail lines.  

Agricultural industry groups say that railways are already halting shipments of crops and fertilizer as of Thursday, threatening the nation’s food supply and likely driving up prices.

“For every day this uncertainty continues, we essentially lose five shipping days because of the ramp down and ramp up,” Corey Rosenbusch, president of The Fertilizer Institute, said in a statement Wednesday. 

Business groups are pushing lawmakers to implement a new contract before Thursday night, warning that inaction would have a devastating effect on inflation and supply chain congestion ahead of the November midterms and holiday shopping season. 

Commuter rail service, which relies on freight rail lines, is another casualty of the disruptions. Amtrak said that it would suspend all long-distance routes starting Thursday, while commuter train systems in Chicago and Los Angeles also warned of looming disruptions. 

Top rail unions have accused railroads of holding the economy hostage in an effort to win the best possible contract terms. They say that railroads are refusing to negotiate on key issues because they know Congress will not allow workers to strike.  

Railroads say that the Biden-appointed board’s contract recommendations represent a fair compromise for both parties and noted that they provide an additional personal day.

The White House has indicated that it will not tolerate a strike, but Biden has not said how Congress should respond if negotiations fall apart. 

“We have made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families and businesses and farmers and communities would experience if they were not to reach a resolution,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders Biden car parts Chuck Schumer Chuck Schumer congress inflation Joe Biden Marty Walsh Rail road strike rail unions Roger Wicker Roger Wicker Supply chains

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