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Biden calls on Congress to head off potential rail strike

Freight rail cars loaded with lumber sat on tracks at the Port of Los Angeles on November 22, 2022 in Los Angeles, Calif. Four rail unions that represent more than half of the 115,000 workers in the industry have rejected the deals that Biden helped broker before the original strike deadline in September and are back at the table trying to work out new agreements.Mario Tama/Getty

OMAHA — President Biden on Monday asked Congress to intervene and block a railroad strike before next month’s deadline in the stalled contract talks, following pressure by business groups on the stalled negotiations.

“Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. “Without freight rail, many US industries would shut down.”

Congress has the power to impose contract terms on the workers, but it’s not clear what lawmakers might include if they do. They could also force the negotiations to continue into the new year.

Both the unions and railroads have been lobbying Congress while contract talks continue. Four rail unions that represent more than half of the 115,000 workers in the industry have rejected the deals that Biden helped broker before the original strike deadline in September and are back at the table trying to work out new agreements. Eight other unions have approved their five-year deals with the railroads and are in the process of getting back pay for their workers for the 24 percent raises that are retroactive to 2020.

Biden said that as a “a proud pro-labor president” he was reluctant to override the views of people who voted against the agreement. “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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Biden's remarks came after a coalition of more than 400 business groups sent a letter to congressional leaders Monday urging them to step into the stalled talks because of fears about the devastating potential impact of a strike that could force many businesses to shut down if they can’t get the rail deliveries they need. Commuter railroads and Amtrak would also be affected in a strike because many of them use tracks owned by the freight railroads.

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The business groups led by the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and National Retail Federation said even a short-term strike would have a tremendous impact and the economic pain would start to be felt even before the Dec. 9 strike deadline. They said the railroads would stop hauling hazardous chemicals, fertilizers and perishable goods up to a week beforehand to keep those products from being stranded somewhere along the tracks.

“A potential rail strike only adds to the headwinds facing the U.S. economy,” the businesses wrote. “A rail stoppage would immediately lead to supply shortages and higher prices. The cessation of Amtrak and commuter rail services would disrupt up to 7 million travelers a day. Many businesses would see their sales disrupted right in the middle of the critical holiday shopping season.”

A similar group of businesses sent another letter to Biden last month urging him to play 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 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."

Congressional leaders and the White House have said they are monitoring the contract talks closely but haven’t indicated when they might act or what they will do. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, said leaders are aware of the situation with the rail negotiations and will monitor the talks in the coming days.

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Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania, said on “Fox News Sunday” that congressional intervention is a last resort but that lawmakers will have to be ready to act.

“Congress will not let this strike happen. That’s for sure,” said Fitzpatrick, who helps lead a bipartisan group of 58 lawmakers. “It would be devastating to our economy. So, we’ll get to a resolution one way or another.”

“It certainly could end up in Congress’ lap, which is why we are headed to D.C. this week to meet with lawmakers on the Hill from both parties,” said Clark Ballew, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, which represents track maintenance workers. “We have instructed our members to contact their federal lawmakers in the House and Senate for several weeks now.”

The unions have asked the railroads to consider adding paid sick time to what they already offered to address some of workers’ quality of life concerns. But so far, the railroads, which include Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Kansas City Southern, have refused to consider that.

The railroads want any deal to closely follow the recommendations a special board of arbitrators that Biden appointed made this summer that called for the 24 percent raises and $5,000 in bonuses but didn’t resolve workers’ concerns about demanding schedules that make it hard to take a day off and other working conditions.

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