As Rail Strike Deadline Nears, Biden to Call on Congress to Intervene


The Washington Post — With less than two weeks until a railroad strike deadline, President Biden plans to call on Congress to take action to avert a shutdown of the country’s freight railroads, according to an official briefed on his plans.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans that were not yet public.

A rail strike could threaten the nation’s water supply, halt passenger rail travel and trigger major disruptions to the U.S. supply chain during the height of the holiday season, potentially worsening inflation. Already, some tech companies have begun rerouting cargo shipments from railroads to trucks in preparation for a potential shutdown, according to CNBC.

Union officials have said it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the unions and major rail freight carriers would reach a deal over lingering issues before a Dec. 9 strike deadline, renewing pressure on Congress and the White House to intervene.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, declined to comment Monday afternoon on the president’s plans. But she emphasized the president and his top aides have been deeply involved in trying to avert the shutdown, warning of the impacts on the American economy.

Jean-Pierre said Biden has also discussed the issue with members of Congress “in case resolving the issue falls to them,” noting that Congress has had to act multiple times in the last 60 years.

“The best option that we believe, that the president believes, is still for the parties to resolve this themselves and to do this really in short order,” she said.

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. On Sunday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled it was a priority for the party, telling members in a letter that leadership is “aware of the ongoing freight rail negotiations and ought to continue to monitor their progress in the days ahead.”

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 in their contract any additional paid days off or the ability to call out sick without punishment.

Caldwell noted that his union is among the most frustrated of the twelve 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.”

The deal that the four unions rejected, negotiated with help from the White House in mid-September, was touted by President Biden at the time as “a win for tens of thousands of rail workers.” It offered all members a 24 percent raise by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a 15 percent cap on health-care premiums. It also granted conductors and engineers who work on often unpredictable shifts a single additional paid day off and allowed them to call out up to three times each year for routine doctors appointments without facing disciplinary action.

But many union members have stressed that the concessions from the railroads do not address their deep-seated concerns about a staffing model that several large carriers have rolled out in recent years that union members say has resulted in severe understaffing and grueling, unpredictable schedules.

Since 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a more than 20 percent decline in railroad employment, which may be due to the new staffing model, according to the Congressional Research Service.

SMART Transportation Division, the largest rail union which mostly represents conductors, announced last week that its roughly 37,000 members narrowly voted down the deal by 50.9 percent. In June, a 51-year-old engineer and member of SMART died of a heart attack on a train after delaying a doctor’s appointment, his family said.

“We feel like the deal missed the mark,” said Beau Trego, a 17-year conductor in Galesburg, Ill., and a member of SMART Transportation Division who voted down the deal. “We’re going to work sick, fatigued. You have so many other jobs where people work 9 to 5 and still have sick days, but we don’t. Hopefully they go back to table and come up with something better.”

The U.S. economy will likely make preparations for a potential rail shutdown in the coming days if a deal is not reached. Days before a strike deadline in September, scheduled shipments of agricultural chemicals were paused and Amrak canceled all long-distance trains. Railroads also made preparations to pause crop shipments.

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