United States congressional leaders have expressed support for quickly ending a threatened rail workers’ strike that could sow chaos in the US economy.
After meeting with President Joe Biden on Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer stated that both the Republicans and his Democratic party leaders support the use of a rare legislative power to solve the union dispute.
Biden had warned Monday of a catastrophic economic impact if railroad services ground to a halt, saying up to 765,000 Americans “could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone”.
At Tuesday’s White House meeting, the president was asked if he was confident he could avert a rail strike and responded with: “I am confident.”
“All four of us agreed we’ve got to resolve this rail shutdown as quickly as possible,” Schumer said, adding that senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell “agreed to try to get it done ASAP”.
Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives said Wednesday that the lower house would vote to force unions to agree to a deal that would prevent a strike. It would then be sent to the Senate.
Unless Congress intervenes a strike of freight rail workers, which are essential to US supply chain, will likely start on December 9. In effect, legislators would force the holdouts to accept a preliminary September agreement on increased wages that was approved by a majority unions.
Four rail union workers rejected the tentative agreement after expressing concern about the lack of paid sick time. Eight union workers however, approved the deal.
A rail traffic stoppage could freeze almost 30 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the country’s economy as much as $2bn per day by unleashing a cascade of transport woes affecting the 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.”
Labour unions have criticised the railroads’ sick leave and attendance policies and the lack of paid sick days for short-term illnesses. Under the tentative deal, there are no sick days paid. The railroads agreed to 15 sick days paid by the unions.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters sharply criticised 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.”
More than 400 organizations called for Congress intervention in the rail labour dispute on Monday. Biden applauded the agreement, which provides a 24% compounded wage rise over five years (2020-2024) and five $1,000 lump-sum payments each year.
Biden had called the White House meeting to discuss the “lame duck” session of Congress ahead of January when Republicans will take over control of the House of Representatives, after their narrow win in November’s midterm elections. A slim majority of Senate Democrats will be retained by Democrats.
According to the White House, Biden and congressional leaders discussed funding for the US government as well as unprecedented military aid to Ukraine in the fight against Russian invasion.
Biden will face the next two years in his first term, with Republicans blocking his legislation, but the White House offered an olive branch.
He told his “Republican colleagues that whatever disagreements they may have, he is always interested in finding new common ground, and that he has an open door to hear their perspectives,” the statement said.