OMAHA, Neb. — President Joe Biden on Monday called on Congress to step in and block a railroad strike before next month’s deadline in stalled contract talks, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said lawmakers would pass legislation this week to enforce the deal the unions agreed to in September.
“Let’s be clear: a rail closure would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. “Without rail freight, many American industries would shut down.”
In a statement, Pelosi said: “We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the tentative agreement – but we must act to prevent a catastrophic national railroad strike, which would cripple our economy.”
Pelosi said the House would not change the terms of the September deal, which would challenge the Senate to approve the House bill without changes.
The September deal that Biden and Pelosi are pushing for is a slight improvement over what the board of referees recommended this summer. The September deal added three unpaid days off a year for engineers and conductors to attend to medical appointments as long as they scheduled them at least 30 days in advance. The railways also promised in September not to penalize hospitalized workers and to continue negotiations with the unions after the contract was approved on improving the regular scheduling of days off.
Hundreds of business groups had urged Congress and the president to intervene in the deadlock in contract talks and prevent a strike.
Unions and railroads have lobbied Congress as contract negotiations continue. If Congress acts, it will end talks between the railroads and four railroad unions that rejected their deals that Biden helped negotiate before an initial strike deadline in September. Eight other unions have approved their five-year agreements with the railways and are in the process of recouping their workers’ pay for the 24% increases retroactive to 2020.
If Congress does what Biden suggests and imposes conditions similar to those agreed to in September, it will end the union’s efforts to add paid sick leave. The four unions that rejected their agreements lobbied for the railroads to add this benefit to help address workers’ quality of life concerns, but the railroads had refused to consider it.
Biden said that as a “proud pro-Labour president” he was reluctant to overrule the opinions of people who voted against the deal. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other workers and families — I think Congress needs to use its powers to pass this deal.”
Biden’s remarks and Pelosi’s statement came after a coalition of more than 400 business groups sent a letter to congressional leaders on Monday urging them to intervene in stalled talks due to fears over the potential impact devastating strike that could force many businesses to close if they cannot get the rail deliveries they need. Commuter railroads and Amtrak would also be hit by a strike because many of them use tracks owned by freight railroads.
Business groups led by the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association and the National Retail Federation said even a short-term strike would have a huge impact and the economic pain would begin to be felt even before the strike deadline of December 9. They said the railways would stop transporting dangerous chemicals, fertilizers and perishables up to a week in advance to prevent these products from being stuck somewhere along the tracks.
“A potential rail strike only adds to the headwinds facing the U.S. economy,” the companies wrote. “A rail shutdown would immediately lead to supply shortages and higher prices. Shutting down Amtrak and commuter rail services would disrupt up to 7 million travelers a day. Many businesses would see their sales halted in the middle of the critical holiday shopping season. »
A similar group of companies sent another letter to Biden last month urging him to take a more active role in resolving the contract dispute.
On Monday, the Association of American Railroads trade group praised Biden’s action.
“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage – not our customers, not railroad workers, not the American economy,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “The time has come for Congress to pass legislation to implement the agreements already ratified by eight of the twelve unions.”
Business groups who have lobbied for Congress to settle this contract dispute hailed Biden’s decision.
“The Biden administration’s endorsement of congressional intervention confirms what U.S. food, beverage, household and personal care makers have been saying: freight rail operations cannot close and shut down. jeopardize the availability and affordability of consumer necessities,” said Tom Madrecki, vice president of supply chain for the Consumer Brands Association. “The consequences for consumers in the event of a strike are too severe, especially in the face of continued supply chain challenges and disruptions.”
Clark Ballew, a spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees division, which represents way maintenance workers, said ahead of Biden’s announcement that the union “is traveling to DC this week to meet with lawmakers. on the Hill from both parties.We have been asking our members to contact their federal lawmakers in the House and Senate for several weeks now.
Neil Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Biden was right to make the case for the deal already reached. “Congress must do what it has done 18 times before: intervene against a nationwide railroad strike,” Bradley said in a statement, and he called on Congress to enforce the agreement reached by the railroads. iron and union leaders as “the only way to avoid a crippling strike”.
The railroads, which include Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX and Kansas City Southern, wanted any deal to closely follow the recommendations of a special board of arbitrators appointed by Biden this summer that called for increases of 24 % and $5,000 bonus but did not resolve workers’ concerns about demanding schedules that make it difficult to take a day off and other working conditions. This is what Biden calls on Congress to impose.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.