Joe Biden calls on US congress to block damaging rail strike

‘Devastate our economy’: Some estimates suggest freight rail stoppage could cost the US economy $2 billion per day

US president Joe Biden is seeking the US Congress to pass legislation to force through a deal to prevent a potential national rail freight strike, which would cause huge damage to the American economy.

Key train company personnel earlier this month rejected a proposed agreement, which the president had earlier been involved in brokering – although the accord was supported by the majority of unions.

Mr Biden said on Monday he was a “proud pro-labour president” and that he was reluctant to over-ride the ballot process in trade unions and the views of members who rejected the proposed deal.

However, he said a rail shutdown would “devastate our economy”.

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“Without freight rail, many US industries would shut down. My economic advisers report that as many as 765,000 Americans – many union workers themselves – could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone. Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock.”

Some estimates have suggested that a rail freight strike could cost $2 billion (€1.95 billion) per day. There are also fears that a strike could exacerbate inflationary pressures in the US economy, and drive up the price of food and fuel. There were also concerns that passengers could face disruption in parts of the United States as many commuter services operate over tracks that are owned by freight rail companies.

Mr Biden said he wanted the US Congress to pass legislation to adopt the tentative agreement between rail union leaders and the management of train companies “without any modification or delay”.

He said senior figures in his administration believed, following talks to unions and employers, that there was “no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table and have recommended that we seek congressional action”.

The president said that the proposed deal, that had originally been negotiated between unions and employers in September provided for “a historic 24 per cent pay raise for rail workers” as well as for improved healthcare benefits and the ability of operating craft workers to take unscheduled leave for medical needs.

About 51 per cent of members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (Smart) voted to reject the proposed new five-year collective bargaining agreement. The union represents 28,000 conductors, brakemen and other personnel.

The key sticking issue for the rail workers would appear to be points-based attendance policies that penalised staff for taking time off when they were sick or for personal time.

While a number of other unions representing rail workers had accepted the proposed new agreement if rail conductors represented by Smart went on strike, they were unlikely to pass pickets.

Mr Biden said: “I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member. No one should have to choose between their job and their health – or the health of their children. I have pressed legislation and proposals to advance the cause of paid leave in my two years in office, and will continue to do so. Every other developed country in the world has such protections for its workers. ”

“But at this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

“Congress has the power to adopt the agreement and prevent a shutdown. It should set aside politics and partisan division and deliver for the American people. Congress should get this bill to my desk well in advance of December 9th so we can avoid disruption.”

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent