Congressional Leaders Commit to Quickly Pass Legislation to Avert Rail Strike
In a press conference, Mrs. Pelosi said that the House will aim to quickly pass legislation that accepts the original labor union agreement negotiated by Biden administration officials plus additional railway worker benefits added from subsequent negotiations.
“I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike. Jobs will be lost, even union jobs will be lost, water will not be safe, product will not be going to market,” she said Tuesday after meeting with President Biden and congressional leaders of both parties at the White House. “That must be avoided.”
Late Monday, Mr. 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. On Tuesday, he said he is confident a rail strike can be avoided and encouraged Congress to vote on legislation to force the adoption of a tentative labor agreement.
“It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk,” he said.
The freight railroads and unions representing engineers, conductors, machinists and other workers have been in labor negotiations for more than two years. Both sides have agreed to a cooling-off period until Dec. 9. The sticking points involve work schedules and paid sick time.
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.
Any House-approved legislation would also need passage in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said at Tuesday’s press conference that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) have agreed to work together quickly for the legislation to pass the Senate.
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio said that he won’t vote for a deal that has been rejected by rail workers.
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 disrupt the flow of goods as soon as next week.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said he expects the legislation to pass.
Some unions aired their displeasure with Mr. Biden’s stance.
“We’ve made it clear we wanted this process to play out, and we even asked Congress not to intervene in this process because by doing that, it takes away any leverage we have with the industry,” said Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Members of BRS, which includes around 6,000 railroad workers affected by the current round of bargaining, voted to reject the tentative agreement in October.
There was also 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.
The freight railroads and unions representing workers have been in labor negotiations for more than two years.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said Tuesday that he won’t vote for a deal that has been rejected by rail workers and said that executives and union leaders should return to the negotiating table instead of relying on Congress to impose a deal.
“Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should,” he said. “It is wrong for the Biden administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected.”
Mr. Biden had urged lawmakers not to modify the agreement, arguing that there is little time to reopen negotiations.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) criticized the contract benefits and number of paid sick days offered to rail workers as inadequate.
“We need to stand with workers,” he said in a statement posted to Twitter. “This is not complicated.”