Congress expected to impose contract on US railroad workers to avert strike

Citing ‘catastrophic’ risk to US economy, Nancy Pelosi announces impending vote to bind unions to September negotiations

The US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has announced that her fellow members of Congress plan to vote this week on imposing a new contract for railroad workers to avert a looming labor strike.

Pelosi made the announcement late on Monday afternoon just after Joe Biden called on Congress to intervene to prevent a strike, a possibility if an agreement between the freight rail industry and unions is not made by 9 December.

In a statement referring to the president’s request, Pelosi said that Democrats were “reluctant to bypass” negotiations but “we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt”.

The agreement that would be imposed if passed by both congressional chambers comes from negotiations that were made in September between the rail companies, several unions and the Biden administration. It would entail a 24% raise by 2024, $1,000 in annual bonuses and a cap on healthcare premiums.

Four unions – including the largest rail union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (Smart), which represents more than 28,000 rail workers – rejected the agreement and had been negotiating with rail companies over the last several weeks. Smart turned down the tentative deal with rail management on 21 November, inching closer to a potential strike in December.

The dozen rail unions, including those who voted in favor of the September deal, agreed to strike if just one union rejects any agreement and takes the dispute to the picket line. The rail industry has estimated a strike would cost the economy $2bn a day as ground transportation for goods and passengers would be halted.

Congress has the ability to impose an agreement on the rail workers to avert a strike, something Democrats have been holding off on to give more room for unions to negotiate with management.

The deadlock between management and the unions is mostly over paid sick leave. The union argues that workers should get at least six days of paid sick leave. They are currently expected to use vacation time if they call out sick and are penalized if they take time off without using vacation days. The agreement Congress is considering does not include a sick leave provision.

On Monday, Biden said that he was “a proud pro-labor president” but that the effects of a strike would be too severe on the US economy.

“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,” the president said in his statement. “Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”

The Railroad Workers Union on Tuesday issued a statement responding to Biden, saying that the president “blew it”.

“He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers,” the statement said.

In her statement, Pelosi said that the House will take up the agreement “with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms” and will soon send it to the Senate if passed.


Lauren Aratani

The GuardianTramp

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