President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he was confident a U.S. rail strike can be averted after he asked Congress to pass legislation to adopt a tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators.
Biden had warned Monday of a catastrophic economic impact if railroad service ground to a halt, saying up to 765,000 Americans “could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone.”
At a White House meeting Tuesday with congressional leaders, the Democratic president was asked if he was confident he could avert a rail strike, and responded, “I am confident.”
Biden said lawmakers had to move quickly. “Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk.”
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that lawmakers would take up legislation this week “to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.”
Workers in four unions have rejected the tentative deal, while workers in eight unions approved it.
A rail traffic stoppage could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day by unleashing a cascade of transport woes affecting U.S. energy, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and retail sectors.
Association of American Railroads Chief Executive Ian Jefferies said, “Congress has historically acted with haste in a highly bipartisan manner and that’s our goal again here as we sit here today.”
Labor unions have criticized the railroads’ sick leave and attendance policies and the lack of paid sick days for short-term illness. There are no paid sick days under the tentative deal. Unions asked for 15 paid sick days and the railroads settled on one personal day.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters sharply criticized Biden’s call to Congress to intervene, saying “the railroad is not a place to work while you’re sick. It’s dangerous…. it is unreasonable and unjust to insist a person perform critical work when they are unwell.”
On Monday, more than 400 groups called on Congress to intervene in the railroad labor standoff that threatens to idle shipments of food and fuel and strand travelers while inflicting billions of dollars of economic damage.
Biden hailed the contract deal that includes a 24% compounded wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 through 2024 and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.
Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board in August released the framework for the tentative deal forged in September between major railroads and a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers. Those carriers include Union Pacific Corp (UNP.N), Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s (BRKa.N) BNSF, CSX Corp (CSX.O), Norfolk Southern Corp (NSC.N) and Kansas City Southern.