As railroad strike deadline approaches, Biden calls on Congress to intervene

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With less than two weeks to go before a railroad strike deadline, President Biden on Monday called on Congress to push through a deal brokered with the help of his administration earlier this year to avert railroad closures in country freight.

“I call on Congress to immediately pass legislation to enact the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators — without any amendments or delays — to avoid a potentially crippling nationwide rail shutdown,” Biden said in his statement late Monday.

This agreement was recently rejected by four railway unions representing most union members. Railroad workers said they were angry and frustrated that the deal lacked paid sick leave or other substantive changes to an attendance policy that penalizes workers who take time off while on duty. sick.

A railroad strike could threaten the nation’s water supply, disrupt passenger rail travel and trigger major disruptions to the U.S. supply chain at the height of the holiday season, potentially worsening inflation . Already, some technology companies have started to re-route freight shipments from railroads to trucks in preparation for a potential shutdown, according to CNBC.

Union officials recently said it looked increasingly unlikely that unions and major rail freight carriers would reach an agreement on the lingering issues before the December 9 strike deadline.

The president said that while he was reluctant to push through a deal that was rejected by union members, acknowledging his pledge to support the unions, he also said a railway strike would “devastate our economy” and “would plunge this nation into a devastating railroad”. freight stop.

“As a proud pro-worker president, I hesitate to overrule the ratification procedures and the opinions of those who voted against the deal,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would harm millions of other workers and families — I think Congress needs to use its powers to pass this deal.”

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Workers in four of the 12 unions that rejected the deal have expressed frustration with the lack of paid sick leave and punitive attendance policies. Railway workers do not receive paid sick leave and are penalized if they are absent. Carriers said their attendance policies are necessary to insure rail line staff and allow workers to take time off when needed, using paid time off.

The 12 unions must vote individually to ratify their contracts, unless Congress imposes a contract. If one union went on strike, all unions – which represent more than 115,000 railway workers – would likely act in solidarity, triggering an industry-wide work stoppage.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats signaled they were awaiting guidance from the White House, though in recent days party leaders have privately 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 the leadership was “in aware of the ongoing freight rail negotiations and should continue to monitor their progress in the days ahead.”

Less than 30 minutes after the White House sent Biden’s statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) released a statement saying the House will consider legislation this week to avert the railroad strike. bill passing the tentative agreement — without poison pills or changes to negotiated terms — and send it to the Senate,” she said in a statement.

Some labor groups have lobbied Congress in recent weeks to add paid sick leave to the deal, and may be frustrated that Biden recommended scrapping those wishes. Meanwhile, lobby groups representing a variety of industries, pressured Congress will pass a deal originally recommended by a Biden-appointed council that does not give workers paid sick leave.

Congress also has the option of extending a cooling-off period, allowing the parties to continue negotiating until they reach an agreement, or forcing both parties into arbitration, where a third-party mediator is involved.

The United States House of Congress and some 400 business groups, representing a wide range of industries, from meat packers to jewelers, sent a letter to Congress on Monday, declaring that the impending railroad strike was of “grave urgency.” They called on Congress to intervene before the strike deadline if an agreement is not reached to “ensure continuity of rail service.”

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“A shutdown of rail service, for any length of time, would be extremely damaging to American families and our economy, costing $2 billion a day,” the letter said.

Tony Caldwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one of the unions that rejected the deal, said its members would not ratify a deal unless it included more sick leave benefits stretches. The union is asking for four paid sick days and currently has none. During final negotiations last week, rail carriers “said they were unwilling to negotiate” on sick days, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said his union, which represents some 23,000 railway workers who maintain rail infrastructure, such as signals, tracks, ballast and carriages, is among the most frustrated of the 12 unions involved in the negotiations. “During [the] pandemic, our members have suffered the most,” Caldwell said. “The pandemic has spread among our members like wildfire. We have lost members to sickness and death. They are not happy with the agreement because it does not solve their main problem: sick leave.

Meanwhile, the trade group representing major railways said it was pushing to find a way forward.

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“We’re on a finite schedule and time is running out on this,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “We are very focused on taking all necessary measures to avoid a work stoppage.”

The deal, rejected by four unions, was brokered with help from the White House in September and touted by Biden at the time as “a victory for tens of thousands of railroad workers.” It offered all members a 24% raise by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on healthcare premiums. It also gave conductors and engineers just one extra paid day off and allowed them to call in up to three times a year for routine medical appointments without facing disciplinary action.

But many union members have pointed out that the railway concessions do not address their deep concerns about a staffing model that several major carriers have rolled out in recent years. Union members say the model forces workers into grueling and unpredictable schedules. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a decline of more than 20% in railroad employment since 2018, which may be partly due to the new staffing modelaccording to the Congressional Research Service.

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

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“We feel like the deal missed the mark,” said Beau Trego, a 17-year-old bandleader in Galesburg, Illinois. “We’re going to work sick, tired. You have so many other jobs where people work 9 to 5 and still have sick days, but not us. I hope they go back to the table and find something better .

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