In a White House meeting Tuesday with top lawmakers, President Joe Biden called on Congress to prevent a rail strike. He warned that the economy would be at risk if Congress fails to act within the next few days.
Talks between railroad workers and their employers seem to have stopped, which makes the possibility of a strike on Dec. 9 more likely. Industry leaders warn that shipment of vital materials such as chemicals to treat drinking water will begin to slow down this week after some rail unions rejected an agreement between labor and railroad companies.
“Congress must act properly, I believe,” Biden stated before the meeting that it was not an easy decision, but that they must make it. “The economy is in danger.”
Congress can block a strike or impose a labor deal on workers under a 1926 law that was intended to stop interstate commerce from being interrupted by labor disputes. To do so, it would be necessary to bridge fundamental differences between Democrats’ long-held support of unions and Republicans’ support for business in less than 10 working days.
Following the meeting with Biden, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that he would work closely with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, to reach a final deal. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Speaker, stated that the House would vote on Wednesday.
Schumer stated to reporters that he and the leader would have to work together to achieve this goal. He was also asked if he had enough votes for legislation to pass.
McConnell agreed with Schumer and said Congress must pass a bill.
Biden was directly involved Monday when he said that Congress should immediately adopt legislation to approve a tentative agreement between labor leaders, railway operators, and labor leaders in September. However, it was rejected by four of the twelve unions. This would prevent a “potentially crippling” national rail shutdown that could “devastate” our economy.
This was a shift in messaging by the White House. For weeks, it has been stated that the best solution for workers and employers would be for them to come up with a resolution themselves. The September deal, in which the administration assisted the broker, was adopted.
Voting in Congress is likely
In recent weeks, companies from a wide range of industries have raised concerns about the potential disruption that a strike could cause to the economy.
However, Congress has not shown any momentum to pass legislation to prevent a strike.
Congress has taken 18 steps since 1960 to stop a strike on rail tracks. It could extend the cooling-off period to give the parties more time before they attempt to come to a voluntary agreement. It could also impose a labor deal on workers that are similar to one agreed to by labor leaders or carriers or modify the agreement in a way that would be more favorable for workers or their employers.
Pelosi stated that the House would vote on Biden’s legislation this week. This wouldn’t change the existing agreement.
She said that the House would adopt the Tentative Agreement this week — without any poison pills or modifications to the terms negotiated — and send it back to the Senate.
Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. House Minority Leader, left the White House, expressing concern about the necessity to pass legislation, but he said he believed it would pass.
McCarthy stated that McCarthy believed it would pass but that it was unfortunate how the economy is currently run.
The Senate may be the bigger hurdle. Republicans and Democrats will have to work together to obtain the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster.
Democrats would be hesitant to impose a contract on workers, given the pro-union positions they have worked for their entire careers. They also risk upsetting the union’s key constituency of labor leaders and members.
It could be an opportunity for Democrats, however, to provide additional benefits to rail workers like sick days and paid vacations, though it would likely be more difficult to win Republican support.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blocked September legislation that would have prevented a strike just before a tentative agreement was reached. He argued that rail workers need better sick leave.
Republicans will use the strike to attack Biden’s economic handling and ignite the possibility of an economic disruption that could harm Democrats in the next election. They could use it to make the labor leader’s contract less favorable, which would be advantageous for the industry.
Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s top Republican, spoke with optimism.
He stated, “The president has said he will ask Congress for action and I would expect Congress to support that request.”
There is no ‘time to dither about’
Companies warned that a sudden shutdown of railways could quickly lead to cities running out of clean water and fuel shortages, as well as farmers not being able to obtain feed for their animals. This would disrupt manufacturing across many sectors and lead to backlogs at ports, with trains not being able to move cargo from ships.
John Drake, vice president of transportation infrastructure and supply chain policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stated that “if you look at what national harm would come around even a strike build-up, it is simply untenable.”
He said, “They won’t have a choice.” This is not something we can fudge around with. The Congressional leadership will have to take action and bipartisan support is required. We have run out of time for political games. We need to find a solution immediately.
Over 400 industry associations signed a Monday letter imploring Congress leaders to act. The White House estimated that as many as 765,000 Americans could lose their jobs in the first two weeks after a strike.
The American Petroleum Institute’s head Mike Sommers stated that Congress is the only obstacle to ensuring the American economy does not take a significant hit due to a disastrous rail strike. We must ensure that the United States Congress takes action on this matter as soon as possible to prevent any economic disaster.