Congress Looks to Intervene in Rail Dispute as Strike Deadline Looms

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Monday that lawmakers plan to intervene this week in the deepening labor dispute between rail companies and their unionized workers, voting on whether to impose an agreement that could avert a shutdown of the nation’s freight trains just before Christmas.

The announcement came shortly after President Biden called on Congress to act, saying the dispute cannot be allowed to “hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

In a statement, Mr. Biden urged the House and Senate to swiftly pass legislation to impose a compromise labor agreement that his administration helped broker but that has failed to win the support of all the rail labor unions.

“On the day that it was announced, labor leaders, business leaders and elected officials all hailed it as a fair resolution of the dispute between the hardworking men and women of the rail freight unions and the companies in that industry,” Mr. Biden said in the statement.

He called on Congress “to pass legislation immediately to adopt” the agreement.

Ms. Pelosi said in a statement soon afterward that “this week, 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.”

It is less clear what will happen in the Senate, where Democrats have 50 seats in the 100-member chamber and most bills require Republican support to pass. The deadline for action is in early December, when several of the labor unions plan to go on strike if an agreement is not reached.

In urging Congress to impose a solution on the dispute, Mr. Biden picked an aggressive stance that could pit him and his Democratic allies against the wishes of rank-and-file union members, who have long been frustrated with treatment by the rail companies.

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Matthew A. Weaver, a carpenter with a rail maintenance workers union that voted down the agreement, said that while he liked many of Mr. Biden’s appointments, “this move seems to cater to the oligarchs.” Mr. Weaver, who has previously worked as a union official, added that “all of rail labor is going to suffer because of this.”

The statements by Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi both took pains to mention their support for unions, calling the decision to intervene in the labor dispute a difficult one. Mr. Biden said he was “reluctant to override the ratification procedures,” and Ms. Pelosi wrote that “railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.”

But Mr. Biden’s call for Congress to act underscores the recognition that a rail strike could have a devastating effect on the fragile economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic. Frozen train lines would snap supply chains for commodities like lumber, coal and chemicals and delay deliveries of automobiles and other consumer goods, driving up prices even further.

“Let me be clear: A rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” the president said. “Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down. My economic advisers report that as many as 765,000 Americans — many union workers themselves — could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone. Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock.”

The president is a staunch union backer who has previously argued against congressional intervention in railway labor disputes, arguing that it unfairly interferes with union bargaining efforts. In 1992, he was one of only six senators to vote against legislation that ended another bitter strike by rail workers.

Mr. Biden’s decision to weigh in on the possibility of a nationwide rail strike comes after weeks in which his administration said it was up to the labor unions and the rail companies to find a way to resolve their issues without the pain of a crippling work stoppage. Just hours before Mr. Biden’s announcement, his press secretary urged the two sides to find a solution quickly.

“The best option that we believe, that the president believes, is still for the parties to resolve this themselves,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House spokeswoman, said before the president’s statement.

Congress has the authority to intervene in a variety of ways. It could push back a strike deadline and extend the negotiating period, or require the two sides to involve an arbitrator. It could also enact a deal directly through legislation — whether it was the agreement that some unions already have voted down, or a less generous proposal that a presidential board issued over the summer.

A coalition of business groups sent a letter on Monday to Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress urging them to intervene.

A coalition of business groups said the cost of a national rail strike could be $2 billion per day.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

“A stoppage of rail service for any duration would be extremely damaging to American families and our economy, costing $2 billion per day,” the group, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in the letter. “The sooner this labor impasse ends, the better for our communities and our national economy.”

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, recently estimated that relying on trucks to work around a rail stoppage would require more than 450,000 additional vehicles — a practical impossibility given the shortage of equipment and drivers.

The railroad industry immediately threw its support behind Mr. Biden’s call for legislation.

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage — not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy,” Ian Jefferies, the chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major carriers, said in a statement. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation.”

Four of the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 employees at large freight rail carriers have voted down the tentative agreement that the Biden administration helped broker in September. The most recent was a large union that primarily represents conductors this month.

If the unions cannot reach a new deal with the railroad companies by early December, that could prompt an industrywide strike because rail workers are likely to honor the picket lines of other unions.

The agreement voted down by the four rail unions would raise wages by nearly 25 percent between 2020, when the last contract expired, and 2024. But it has proved contentious among rail workers who argue that it does not go far enough to resolve what they say are punishing schedules that upend their personal lives and their health.

While the agreement would let employees miss work up to three times each year to attend to routine medical appointments, many argue that it does not address the unpredictable shifts that arise from chronic understaffing.

The Surface Transportation Board, which regulates freight rail, recently estimated that large freight rail operators have reduced their work force by nearly 30 percent over the past six years.

Certain provisions of the agreement could even lead to more erratic scheduling by allowing rail carriers to do away with substitute workers who step in when others call in sick.

Some workers have long suspected that Congress would intervene rather than allow them to strike, a suspicion that Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh heightened during an interview with CNN this month, when he said Congress would have to take action if the two sides could not reach a deal on their own. It was unclear whether Mr. Walsh was speaking hypothetically or urging intervention.

Mr. Biden is a longtime supporter of rail, having spent most of his adult life commuting on Amtrak from his home in Wilmington, Del., to Washington. But for the president, the decision to embrace congressional action as a solution to the labor dispute is a high-stakes gamble that threatens to anger some of his biggest supporters in the labor community.

Though many members are likely to be upset by the prospect of congressional intervention, some union leaders may quietly prefer that intervention to come in December rather than January, when the House comes under Republican control and may be more likely to back the skimpier deal.

In his statement, the president said the threat of economic calamity that could follow from a rail strike convinced him that Congress should act.

“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.”

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