The US House of Representatives plans to vote on Wednesday to block a potential a US rail strike after President Joe Biden warned of the dire economic consequences of a rail disruption that could happen as early as December 9th.
Mr Biden had warned on Monday of a catastrophic economic impact if railroad service stopped, saying up to 765,000 Americans “could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone”.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said politicians will vote to impose a tentative contract deal struck in September. “We must avoid a strike,” she said on Tuesday after a meeting with Biden.
At a White House meeting on Tuesday with congressional leaders, the president was asked if he was confident he could avert a rail strike. He responded: “I am confident.”
Mr Biden said politicians had to move quickly. “Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk.”
Workers in four unions have rejected the tentative deal after criticising the lack of paid sick leave, while workers in eight unions approved it.
A rail traffic stoppage could freeze almost 30 per cent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the US economy as much as $2 billion a day by unleashing a cascade of transport woes affecting US energy, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and retail sectors.
The 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 illness. There are no paid sick days under the tentative deal. Unions asked for 15 paid sick days and the railroads settled on one personal day.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters sharply criticised Mr 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.”
On Monday, more than 400 groups called on Congress to intervene in the standoff that threatens to stall shipments of food and fuel and strand travellers while inflicting billions of dollars of economic damage.
Mr Biden welcomed the contract deal that includes a 24 per cent compounded wage increase over five years from 2020 t0 2024 and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.
Mr Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board in August released the framework for the tentative deal forged in September between major railroads and a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers. Those carriers include Union Pacific Corp, Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF, CSX Corp, Norfolk Southern Corp and Kansas City Southern.