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Congress prepares to avoid rail strike; some aren't happy despite bipartisan agreement

Joe Biden, Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell
Posted at 11:25 AM, Nov 29, 2022

President Joe Biden met with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on Tuesday with averting a rail strike one of the meeting’s biggest subjects.

The White House has warned that a strike by the nation’s rail workers would have a crippling effect on supply chains.

“The President and the four leaders discussed how Congress can act to prevent a rail shutdown, which would have devastating consequences for workers, families, and our economy,” the White House said in a statement.

“Congress has to act to prevent it,” Biden said. “The economy is at risk.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that legislation could be drafted as soon as tomorrow.

"I don't like going against the ability of the unions to strike," Pelosi told reporters, "but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike."

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said he expects legislation to prevent a rail strike will pass but blamed Democrats for letting it get to this point.

“When farmers need to ship their goods and others, we have to rush something to the floor,” McCarthy said. “This is, I think it will pass, but it's unfortunate that this is how we're running our economy today. This has all got to stop and change. We need an economy that is strong. If you're passing a bill to force the rail workers to work, how strong is your economy?”

The National Retail Federation last week urged Congress to intervene.

“American businesses and families are already facing increased prices due to persistent inflation, and a rail strike will create greater inflationary pressures and will threaten business resiliency. Congress must intervene immediately to avoid a rail strike and a catastrophic shutdown of the freight rail system,” said NRF CEO Matthew Shay.

Rail unions are expressing their disappointment with the Biden administration.

“President Biden is now touting the tentative agreements that the majority of union members had voted down, despite that none of them contain any sick time whatsoever,” said Railroad Works United Co-Chair and conductor Gabe Christenson. “The most ‘labor-friendly president in history’ has proven that he and the Democratic Party are not the friends of labor they have touted themselves to be. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have for decades been in bed with corporate America and have allowed them to continue chipping away at the American middle class and organized labor.”

While it appears both Democrats and Republicans are willing to hammer out an agreement, a few on the left are not happy. 

“It’s not just the unions who understand that working conditions on the railroads, with no guaranteed sick leave, is inhumane,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

The sides agreed to postpone any strikes until Dec. 9. Twelve rail unions have banded together to say if one strikes, they all strike. As of now, four unions rejected terms.

The possibility of a rail strike has been on the horizon for months. The Biden administration got involved during the summer by getting the sides to hold off on a strike during a 60-day cooling-off period in July. That period expired in September.

During that time, the Presidential Emergency Board came up with a recommended contract for the sides, which included a 24% compounded wage increase during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024, with a 14.1% wage increase effective immediately for union employees. The retroactive pay increase would provide an average of $11,000 per employee in back pay.

The recommendation also would give employees additional paid time off and cap employee insurance contributions at 15%.

In September, the Biden administration worked out talks between union and business leaders. The sides at the time reached a tentative deal.

While Biden is unable to prevent a strike, Congress can intervene if need be. It is a scenario that the Association of American Railroads foresees.

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage – not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation to implement the agreements already ratified by eight of the twelve unions. A clear pattern of ratified agreements has been established and Congressional action to prevent a work stoppage in this manner is appropriate. These agreements will ultimately boost average employee compensation and benefits to more than $160,000.”