Reported by Michael D. Shear and Emily Cochrane for The New York Times.
Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress vowed on Tuesday to pass legislation averting a nationwide rail strike, saying they agreed with President Biden that a work stoppage during the holidays next month would disrupt shipping and deal a devastating blow to the nation’s economy.
The rare bipartisan promise to act came as some of the nation’s largest business groups warned of dire consequences from a rail shutdown. Mr. Biden, who had promised to be the most pro-union president in the country’s history, said the federal government must short-circuit collective bargaining in this case for the good of the country as a whole.
“It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it,” he told the top four lawmakers from both parties during a meeting at the White House on Tuesday morning, as the Dec. 9 strike deadline loomed. “The economy is at risk.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would vote Wednesday on a tentative agreement that Mr. Biden’s administration had helped negotiate between rail companies and the unions earlier this year. The agreement raised wages but lacked provisions for paid medical or family leave.
“They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said on Twitter. “If Congress intervenes, it should be to have workers’ backs and secure their demands in legislation.”
Senate leaders said they would work to pass legislation to avert the strike quickly after it passes the House, as expected. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, told reporters that “we’re going to need to pass a bill,” suggesting that Republicans did not intend to try to block such a move. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, said, “I think it will pass.”
If it does, it will be bittersweet for Mr. Biden, who has built a decades-long political career by stressing his support for unions in their battles against management. Aides said the president had been reluctant to override the will of union workers, but ultimately changed his mind when three of his cabinet secretaries told him that negotiations had broken down and a strike seemed inevitable.
Officials said Mr. Biden concluded that the effects of a strike, including hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, would be too damaging. Frozen train lines would snap supply chains for commodities like lumber, coal and chemicals, and delay deliveries of automobiles and other consumer goods, driving up prices even further.
The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, recently estimated that relying on trucks to work around a rail stoppage would require more than 450,000 additional vehicles — a practical impossibility given the shortage of equipment and drivers.
“There will be those who disagree and there will certainly be those who are frustrated at this decision,” said Celeste Drake, the deputy director for labor issues at the National Economic Council. “But you know, in the end this is the president standing with all Americans.”
This was not the resolution the president had hoped for.
Mr. Biden’s call for Congress to act followed months of negotiations by the administration’s top labor officials with the railway companies and their unions, who have been locked in a bitter dispute over wages, sick leave, work schedules and other quality of life issues.
Negotiations in September, led by Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, ended with the tentative agreement that would raise wages by nearly 25 percent between 2020, when the last contract expired, and 2024. But it has proved contentious among rail workers who argue that it does not go far enough to resolve what they say are punishing schedules that upend their personal lives and their health.
Eight unions voted to support that agreement, but four did not. The legislation under consideration would impose the deal on all 12 unions, effectively forcing union employees to continue working.
With the railroad companies unable to reach agreements with all of their unions, Mr. Biden decided to force a deal on the parties. Some union leaders backed the move as necessary, but others said rank-and-file members would be angry at Mr. Biden for blocking their ability to demand a better deal.
Under the Railway Labor Act, union employees who refuse to work after Congress acts would be conducting an illegal “wildcat” strike and could be replaced by the companies.
“I totally understand the frustration with the White House and Congress taking the vote out of working members’ hands, stopping them from utilizing their biggest leverage,” Mr. Regan said. “I do think that some of the anger is lost on where it should be directed — at the railroads.”
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