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Congressional leaders say they will act to prevent rail strike

President Biden meets with congressional leaders in the Roosevelt Room to discuss legislative priorities through the end of the year, at the White House in Washington on Nov. 29.DOUG MILLS/NYT

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress vowed Tuesday to pass legislation averting a nationwide rail strike, saying they agreed with President Joe Biden that a work stoppage during the holidays next month would disrupt shipping and deal a devastating blow to the nation’s economy.

The rare bipartisan promise to act came as some of the nation’s largest business groups warned of dire consequences from a rail shutdown. Biden, who had promised to be the most pro-union president in the country’s history, said the federal government must short-circuit collective bargaining in this case for the good of the country as a whole.

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“It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it,” he told the top four lawmakers from both parties during a meeting at the White House on Tuesday morning, as the Dec. 9 strike deadline loomed. “The economy is at risk.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would vote Wednesday on a tentative agreement that Biden’s administration had helped negotiate between rail companies and the unions earlier this year. The agreement raised wages but lacked provisions for paid medical or family leave.

Late Tuesday, facing substantial frustration among progressives who demanded that the offer include paid leave, Pelosi said she would also bring up a separate proposal to add seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement. It is unclear whether Republicans in the Senate would agree to such an addition, but the plan to hold a vote illustrated the degree of discontent among pro-union liberals about the agreement Biden had struck.

“They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said on Twitter. “If Congress intervenes, it should be to have workers’ backs and secure their demands in legislation.”

Senate leaders said they would work to pass legislation to avert the strike quickly after it passes the House, as expected. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, told reporters that “we’re going to need to pass a bill,” suggesting that Republicans did not intend to try to block such a move. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, said, “I think it will pass.”

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If it does, it will be bittersweet for Biden, who has built a decadeslong political career by stressing his support for unions in their battles against management. Aides said the president had been reluctant to override the will of union workers, but ultimately changed his mind when three of his Cabinet secretaries told him that negotiations had broken down and a strike seemed inevitable.

Officials said Biden concluded that the effects of a strike, including hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, would be too damaging. 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.

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.

“There will be those who disagree and there will certainly be those who are frustrated at this decision,” said Celeste Drake, the deputy director for labor issues at the National Economic Council. “But you know, in the end this is the president standing with all Americans.”

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This was not the resolution the president had hoped for.

Biden’s call for Congress to act followed months of negotiations by the administration’s top labor officials with the railway companies and their unions, which have been locked in a bitter dispute over wages, sick leave, work schedules and other quality of life issues.

Negotiations in September, led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, ended with the tentative agreement that would raise wages by nearly 25% 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.

Eight unions voted to support that agreement, but four did not. The legislation under consideration would impose the deal on all 12 unions, effectively forcing union employees to continue working.

With the railroad companies unable to reach agreements with all of their unions, Biden decided to force a deal on the parties. Some union leaders backed the move as necessary, but others said rank-and-file members would be angry at Biden for blocking their ability to demand a better deal.

Under the Railway Labor Act, union employees who refuse to work after Congress acts would be conducting an illegal “wildcat” strike and could be replaced by the companies.

Greg Regan, the head of the AFL-CIO’s transportation department, said that while the rail workers’ frustration was legitimate, the options available to their unions and to the White House are heavily constrained by the Railway Labor Act. He said the major rail carriers grasp these limits well and exploit them as a source of leverage.

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“I totally understand the frustration with the White House and Congress taking the vote out of working members’ hands, stopping them from utilizing their biggest leverage,” Regan said. “I do think that some of the anger is lost on where it should be directed — at the railroads.”

After winning the White House, Biden was quick to oust Trump appointees whom union officials regarded as hostile and to scrap Trump-era rules that they had opposed. A pandemic relief bill that Biden signed early in his presidency ticked off several labor priorities, including hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to cities and states, a boon to public sector unions, and tens of billions to supplement failing union pension funds. The climate, health care and tax bill that Biden signed in August includes incentives for builders of clean energy projects to pay union-scale wages.

Steve Rosenthal, the former political director for the AFL-CIO and a longtime union strategist, said asking Congress to step in was an “awkward” moment for the president.

“He starts with an enormous amount of goodwill and trust among the labor movement,” Rosenthal said. “I would have to guess that in some ways, it’s tougher for him because he does understand the ins and outs of the process better than most.”

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

Lawmakers in both parties appeared ready to support the move, with reservations. Some Republicans objected that the Biden administration was asking Congress to take action on something it should have handled, while other lawmakers acknowledged they were hesitant to get involved in a labor dispute and force workers to accept an agreement they found inadequate.

But it appeared that the threat of the economic damage of a strike, as inflation remains high, was enough to push some lawmakers toward supporting the resolution.

“I wish that the president were more hands-on with this issue and able to handle it without coming to Congress,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “But I don’t think we should be irresponsible and leave the possibility out there of a major strike.”

In the hours before Pelosi announced that she would hold a second vote on paid sick leave, some lawmakers said they would not support a measure ending the threat of a strike if it does not include stronger paid medical leave benefits for workers.

“At a time of record profits in the rail industry, it’s unacceptable that rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said on Twitter.

By law, Congress has the authority to intervene in a rail labor dispute in a variety of ways, including by enacting a deal directly through legislation — whether it be the agreement that some unions already have voted down or a less generous proposal that a presidential board issued over the summer.

The president has previously argued against congressional action in railway labor disputes, arguing that it unfairly interferes with union bargaining efforts. He was one of only six senators to vote against the legislation that ended the 1992 strike.

Pelosi also expressed frustration Tuesday about being asked to overrule the wishes of union workers who want a better deal.

“I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike,” Pelosi said. “But weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike. Jobs will be lost. Even union jobs will be lost.”

Matt Shay, the president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, a lobbying group for retailers, warned that failing to resolve the labor dispute would be “devastating for our economy,” adding: “It’s the worst possible time for this to happen.”

The railroad industry immediately threw its support behind 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.”