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caption: In an aerial view, freight rail cars sit in a rail yard near shipping containers on Nov. 22in Wilmington, Calif.
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In an aerial view, freight rail cars sit in a rail yard near shipping containers on Nov. 22in Wilmington, Calif.
Credit: Getty Images

Congress prepares to avert a massive railroad strike

The House is expected to vote today on a bill that would force unions to accept the tentative agreement reached earlier this year between railroad owners and their workers, and make a potential imminent strike illegal. President Biden is leading the effort to head off a strike that could upend transportation of goods and services, skyrocketing prices on everyday items, including gasoline.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will also vote on a measure that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement, an effort to ease concerns from labor unions and some lawmakers, despite Biden's request not to alter the carefully negotiated underlying deal.

Labor advocates have long criticized the agreement for not addressing leave policies and particularly not including paid sick days — major sticking points between workers and management in the years-long negotiations.

"We're disappointed that Congress is being called to intervene here for a couple reasons. The first one is it shouldn't take the president or Congress to intervene to begin with. The railroads should do the right thing," said Peter Kennedy, chief negotiator for BMWED, one of the unions who rejected the agreement over the lack of sick leave, adding that the union is prepared to strike.

"We continue to ask that Congress do the right thing here, which is: If you're going to legislate a solution, they should legislate paid sick leave along with the tentative agreements," Kennedy said.

But railroad managers are already warning Congress against making any changes to the agreement. They, and Biden, urge Congress to pass a bill implementing it as it was negotiated in the fall.

"The ramifications of approving such a measure would disincentivize future voluntary agreements for freight railroads, Amtrak and airlines if a party in bargaining believes it can obtain a better deal from Congress than it could through good faith negotiations and the statutory [the Presidential Emergency Board] process under the Railway Labor Act," said Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies in a statement. "This ignores over 100 years of precedent and clearly usurps long-standing bargaining procedures."

A rail strike is likely without congressional action, Biden warned Tuesday morning before meeting with bipartisan House and Senate leaders at the White House to talk about remaining legislative priorities.

"It's not an easy call. But I think we have to do it," he said before the meeting. "The economy's at risk."

The call from the president comes weeks after the administration encouraged unions and management to come to an agreement on their own at the bargaining table — without congressional interference.

Strike threat in two weeks threatens the supply chain

The earliest workers could strike is Dec. 9, given that four of the 12 unions – including the largest – have rejected the tentative agreement brokered in September by the Biden administration, management and union leaders.

"For us, the strike effectively starts this weekend," said Corey Rosenbusch, president of the Fertilizer Institute on a call with reporters. "Rail carriers have already notified that ammonia shipments will need to be pulled off of the network starting about five days before, which would be December 4th. So many of the fertilizer companies are already preparing for that reality.

Railroads handle the transportation of 30 to 40% of all goods, but take on the lion's share of products like ethanol, fertilizer and grains. Railroad managers warn that with a strike, there are few other options given ongoing trucking shortages and the risk of backlogging ports.

"I think the important piece to understand here when it comes to the contingency planning question is that there is zero elasticity right now in transportation. We are struggling with drivers, truck drivers and then most recently so much fertilizer also moves by waterways," Rosenbusch said. "So the low water levels that we've been hearing about in the Mississippi River have already curtailed a lot of fertilizer movement by barge that had to shift to rail."

The biggest sticking point: sick leave

The contract negotiated by the administration includes provisions that would increase wages 24% over five years and cap healthcare premiums. But workers have argued that they want fairer treatment, especially in absence policies.

"They want paid sick leave," Kennedy said. "The same people who work their tails off through the pandemic, risking their health to make sure that Americans got their supplies while many of them work from home and via Zoom. So we're not asking for a lot here now."

But railroad management has pushed back, arguing that sick leave is handled on a railroad-by-railroad basis and each of the 12 separate union contracts includes its own form of paid sick benefits. They also point to the recommendations and tentative agreement crafted by the Presidential Emergency Board, a group put together by Biden earlier this year to intervene in negotiations.

"The PEB certainly evaluated both sides' proposals and made a recommendation and in its recommendation explicitly rejected union's request for additional traditional paid sick days because of the paradigms that currently exist, but also said that it was adding to the recommended wage increases in lieu of addressing those requests by the unions," Jefferies of the Association of American Railroads said on the call with reporters.

Getting members on board

After the meeting between congressional leaders and the president on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had agreed to get a bill passed in the Senate "ASAP," well before Dec. 9. Asked whether he had the votes, he said, "We're working on it."

At least one Senate Republican said leaders should not count on his vote. In a tweet, Sen. Marco Rubio wrote he won't vote for a deal "that doesn't have the support of rail workers." Others like Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and John Hickenlooper of Colorado have also said they would vote for a measure that tacks on paid sick leave to the agreement. [Copyright 2022 NPR]