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Biden Calls on Congress to Pass Legislation to Avert Rail Shutdown

( WSJ )

President Biden called on Congress to pass legislation that would avert a rail shutdown by imposing a proposed contract that members at four railroad unions had rejected.

The move would cut short a long-running labor dispute between the country’s biggest freight railroads and more than 115,000 workers that threatens to hurt the economy and disrupt the flow of goods as soon as next week.

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “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.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said the House would vote this week on legislation to adopt the tentative agreement, which was based on recommendations from a White House mediation panel. Members at four out of 12 unions have rejected the proposed contract.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress can make both sides accept an agreement that their members have voted down. Lawmakers also can order negotiations to continue and delay the strike deadline for a certain period, or they can send the dispute to outside arbitrators.

Mr. Biden urged lawmakers not to modify the agreement, arguing that there is little time to reopen negotiations. “However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides,” Mr. Biden said.

The freight railroads and unions representing engineers, conductors, machinists and other workers, have been in labor negotiations for more than two years. The White House appointed a panel over the summer to mediate the discussions.

The five-year agreement that came out of those discussions offers railroad workers a 24% increase in wages from 2020 through 2024. It allows for one additional paid day off, on top of existing vacation and paid time off. The sticking points involve work schedules and paid sick time.

Both sides have agreed to a cooling-off period until Dec. 9. The two sides are in negotiations but the railroads said they would not deviate far from the recommendations of the panel, while union leaders said they must win new concessions, such as paid sick days, to take back to their workers.

The last national rail strike, in 1991, lasted about 24 hours before Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed legislation ordering the workers back to their jobs and setting up an arbitration process to resolve a dispute over staffing.

Freight railroads move about 40% of U.S. long-distance cargo and deliver freight such as feedstock, coal, lumber, construction material and automotive parts. Even a short strike could lead to diversions and cascade to delays and congestion, pushing back recovery in some supply chains.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter on Monday, signed by dozens of other business lobbying groups, to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling on them to intervene to prevent a labor strike or a lockout by the railroads.

In previous disputes when Congress intervened and forced unions to accept an agreement, union leaders said they didn’t sign the contracts but their workers had to return to work under the terms of the new agreement.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), who in September proposed a bill that would impose the contract terms brokered by the Biden-appointed panel, said Monday that he approved of Mr. Biden’s call for intervention.

“That’s the big boy thing to do—to take ownership of the process that he put in place,” he told reporters. “A compromise has been offered that no one is fully happy about, but the responsible thing to do is avoid a strike, and so I’m glad to see the president has stepped up.”

There is reluctance among some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to intervene. Some Democrats are hesitant to tell labor union leaders what to do, while some Republicans philosophically oppose government intervention into private contractual negotiations.

“Congress shouldn’t have to be in the middle of this,” Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) told reporters on Monday evening. “This really ought to be something they can work out.”

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