WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden called on Congress on Monday to intervene in the deepening labor dispute between rail companies and their unionized workers, warning that a strike that shuts down freight trains just days before Christmas would be devastating for the nation’s economy.
In a statement, Biden urged Congress to pass legislation to impose an agreement that his administration helped broker but that has failed to win the support of all the rail labor unions.
Biden’s decision to weigh in on the possibility of a nationwide rail strike comes after weeks in which his administration said it was up to the labor unions and the rail companies to find a way to resolve their issues without the pain of a crippling work stoppage. Just hours before Biden’s announcement, his press secretary urged the two sides to find a solution quickly.
“The best option that we believe, that the president believes, is still for the parties to resolve this themselves,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House spokesperson.
The president is a staunch union backer who has previously argued against congressional intervention in railway labor disputes, arguing that doing so unfairly interferes with the union bargaining efforts. In 1992, he was one of only six senators to vote against legislation that ended another bitter strike by rail workers.
But Biden’s call for Congress to act underscores the president’s recognition of the effect that a rail strike could have on the fragile economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. Frozen train lines would snap supply chains for commodities such as lumber, coal and chemicals and delay deliveries of automobiles and other consumer goods, driving up prices even further.
“Let me be clear: A rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” the president said.
Congress could intervene in a variety of ways. It could push back a strike deadline and extend the negotiating period, or require the two sides to involve an arbitrator. It could also enact a deal directly through legislation – whether it was the agreement that some unions already have voted down, or a less generous proposal that a presidential board issued over the summer.
If the unions cannot reach a new deal with the railroad companies by early December, that could prompt an industrywide strike because rail workers are likely to honor the picket lines of other unions.
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