Joe Biden called on Congress to intervene and block a railroad strike before next month’s deadline in the stalled contract talks, saying a strike would “devastate our economy”.
Biden’s move comes as business groups have warned that the looming strike would hit just before the holiday season and worsen the US’s inflation problems.
“Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. “Without freight rail, many US industries would shut down.”
The strike comes after long-running negotiations reached an impasse and both sides agreed to a cooling-off period that ends next week.
Congress has the power to impose contract terms on the workers, but it’s not clear what lawmakers might include if they do. They could also force the negotiations to continue into the new year.
Both the unions and railroads have been lobbying Congress while contract talks continue. Four rail unions that represent more than half of the 115,000 workers in the industry have rejected the deals that Biden helped broker before the original strike deadline in September and are back at the table trying to work out new agreements. Eight other unions have approved their five-year deals with the railroads and are in the process of getting back pay for their workers for the 24% raises that are retroactive to 2020.
Last month the Biden administration said it was up to unions and the rail companies to reach an agreement. In his statement Biden said that as “a proud pro-labor president” he was reluctant to override the views of people who voted against the agreement. “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.”
Biden’s remarks came after a coalition of more than 400 business groups sent a letter to congressional leaders on Monday urging them to step into the stalled talks because of fears about the devastating potential impact of a strike that could force many businesses to shut down if they cannot get the rail deliveries they need. Commuter railroads and Amtrak would also be affected in a strike because many of them use tracks owned by the freight railroads.
The business groups, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, said even a short-term strike would have a tremendous impact and the economic pain would start to be felt even before the 9 December strike deadline. They said the railroads would stop hauling hazardous chemicals, fertilizers and perishable goods up to a week beforehand to keep those products from being stranded somewhere along the tracks.
“A potential rail strike only adds to the headwinds facing the US economy,” the businesses wrote. “A rail stoppage would immediately lead to supply shortages and higher prices. The cessation of Amtrak and commuter rail services would disrupt up to 7 million travelers a day. Many businesses would see their sales disrupted right in the middle of the critical holiday shopping season.”
On Monday, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) trade group praised Biden’s action. “No one benefits from a rail work stoppage – not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy,” said the AAR’s president and chief executive, Ian Jefferies. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation to implement the agreements already ratified by eight of the 12 unions.”
The unions have asked the railroads to consider adding paid sick time to what they already offered to address some of the workers’ quality-of-life concerns. But so far, the railroads, which include Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX and Kansas City Southern, have refused to consider that.
The railroads want any deal to closely follow the recommendations a Biden-appointed special board of arbitrators made this summer that called for the 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses but did not resolve workers’ concerns about demanding schedules they say make it hard to take a day off and other working conditions.
The Associated Press contributed reporting