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As rail strike deadline nears, Biden calls on Congress to intervene

Railroad workers would need to ratify union contracts before a Dec. 9 strike deadline to avert a rail shutdown, renewing pressure on Congress to intervene

CSX Transportation Inc. freight trains sit parked in a railroad yard in Louisville on Sept. 14 ahead of a potential freight rail workers' strike. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)
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With less than two weeks until a railroad strike deadline, President Biden called on Congress on Monday to impose a deal negotiated with help from his administration this year to avert a shutdown of the country’s freight railroads.

“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators – without any modifications or delay – to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown,” Biden said in his statement on Monday evening.

That deal was recently voted down by four railroad unions representing most of the union members. The rail workers have said they are angry and frustrated that the deal lacked paid sick days or other substantial changes to an attendance policy that penalizes workers for taking time off while they are sick.

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.

Congressional leaders vow to avert rail strike

Union officials have recently 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.

The president said that while he was hesitant to push a deal that had been rejected by union members, acknowledging his promise to stand by unions, he also said a rail strike “would devastate our economy” and “hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

Death on a train: A tragedy that helped fuel the railroad showdown

Workers from the four of the 12 unions that voted down the agreement cited frustration over the lack of paid sick time and punitive attendance policies. Railroad workers do not receive paid sick days and are penalized 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, unless Congress imposes a contract. 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 party leaders in recent days have privately discussed legislative contingency plans. On Sunday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled that 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.”

Less than 30 minutes after the White House sent out Biden’s statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put out a statement saying the House will consider legislation this week to avert the rail strike. “The House will take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement – with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms – and send it to the Senate,” she said in a statement.

Some union groups have been lobbying Congress in recent weeks to add paid sick days to the deal, and could be frustrated that Biden has recommended scrapping these wishes. Lobbying groups representing a variety of industries, meanwhile, have been pressuring Congress to enact a deal originally recommended by a Biden-appointed board that does not grant workers paid sick days.

Congress also has the option to 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.”

In photos: Rail strikes that changed America

“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 and has not been offered any. In the latest negotiations last week, the rail carriers “stated that they were unwilling to negotiate over” sick days, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said his union, which represents some 23,000 rail workers who maintain rail infrastructure, such as signals, tracks, ballast and rail cars, is among the most frustrated of the 12 unions involved in negotiations. “During [the] pandemic, our members suffered the most,” Caldwell said. “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 agreed with Biden that Congress should implement the deal negotiated by his administration.

Everything you need to know about the threat of a rail strike

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage — not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy,” said Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation to implement the agreements already ratified by eight of the twelve unions."

The deal, rejected by four unions, was negotiated with help from the White House in September and touted by 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 cap on health-care premiums. It also granted conductors and engineers 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. Union members say the model forces workers into grueling, unpredictable schedules. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a more than 20 percent decline in railroad employment since 2018, which may stem in part from 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, who was a member of the union, 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. “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.”