Business & Lobbying

Congress poised to avoid crippling rail strike, enraging workers

Congress is poised to end the threat of a rail strike after President Biden called on lawmakers to force through a tentative contract agreement that some railroad workers rejected. 

The move would avert a national rail shutdown that would cripple the nation’s economy in the middle of the holiday shopping season. But it would also enrage rail workers, who feel they were never given a fair shot at the bargaining table.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) aims to pass legislation Wednesday to block a strike. Lawmakers don’t think they can wait until the Dec. 9 strike deadline to act, as railroads would begin to wind down their operations as soon as this weekend, shutting down key shipments and commuter rail lines.

Biden said Monday that his administration saw “no path” to resolving the dispute at the bargaining table. Four of the 12 rail unions don’t have a contract with the railroads, including SMART-TD, whose train workers last week voted down the tentative deal negotiated with the help of the Biden administration in September. Though eight unions have ratified contracts, a strike by one union obligates all 12 strike.

“Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk,” Biden told reporters Tuesday during a meeting with congressional leaders.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, one of the rail unions that saw its workers vote down a contract proposal, said Tuesday that it was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s decision, noting that the tentative deal doesn’t provide any paid sick days. 

“A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the railroad workers’ concerns. It both denies railroad workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike,” the union said in a statement.

Those scathing remarks echo workers’ grievances throughout the process — that railroad executives have refused to meet their demands for paid sick leave and more predictable scheduling because they know Congress would never allow a strike to take place.  

That threat of government intervention doesn’t exist in less strategically critical industries that have taken part in a wave of walkouts this year. 

Railroads transport nearly one-third of the nation’s freight, including massive amounts of fuel, water, produce, car parts and other items. Other modes of transportation such as trucking are stretched far too thin to take on even a fraction of the goods shipped by rail. 

As such, Congress is under tremendous pressure from corporate America to intervene, particularly as the holiday season ramps up demand for shipped products.

“Millions of e-commerce orders will be stranded in train cars for partial shipments, and intermodal cargo will back up and return gridlock to the nation’s ports,” Retail Industry Leaders Association President Brian Dodge told reporters Tuesday.

Hundreds of influential trade associations are lobbying lawmakers to stave off a strike long before the Dec. 9 deadline. Amtrak suspended several routes in September as railroads closed down some lines about a week before a threatened strike date. 

“For us, a strike effectively starts this weekend,” Corey Rosenbusch, president of the Fertilizer Institute, told reporters Tuesday, referring to shipments of fertilizer and other chemicals that would be the first to be shut down for safety reasons. 

The Association of American Railroads, which estimates that a strike would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day, released a poll this week showing that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to step in to ensure rail service continues.  

“Our entire nation would suffer: more than 750,000 workers, including many union members, would lose their jobs in just the first two weeks. Millions of families wouldn’t be able to get groceries, medications and other goods, and our economy would be paralyzed as it continues to recover,” Pelosi said in a statement Monday. 

It’s expected that the tentative deal forced through by Congress would only apply to unions that have not yet ratified contract agreements. The agreement provides workers with 24 percent raises over five years, including back pay, and makes it easier for workers to take time off without pay.

Labor leaders have been working with Democrats on language to give workers a stronger contract, and Pelosi said that the party is “continuing to fight for more of railroad workers’ priorities, including paid sick leave.” But at the same time, Pelosi said that the bill wouldn’t include any “poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms.”

“Joe Biden blew it. He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers. Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days,” Hugh Sawyer, treasurer at Railroad Workers United, a grassroots rail workers group, said in a statement. 

Still, it’s unclear how Democrats would get 10 Senate Republicans to go along with that plan. 

In September, GOP senators insisted that Congress force through a tentative contract based on recommendations from a Biden-appointed board that didn’t provide sick leave. Republicans balked at the idea of modifying the agreement to make it more worker-friendly and argued that labor unions were holding the U.S. economy hostage by pushing for better terms.

Asked about rail strike legislation following a meeting at the White House Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said only, “We need to pass a bill.” 

Tags Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi rail strike
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