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Republicans push intervention from Congress if rail talks fail

Sept. 14, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 14, 2022 at 9:51 a.m.

A freight train moves through Pascagoula, Miss., on May 29, 2022.   (Emily Kask/Washington Post )
A freight train moves through Pascagoula, Miss., on May 29, 2022.  (Emily Kask/Washington Post )
By Jeff Stein and Lauren Kaori Gurley Washington Post

Top Republican lawmakers are preparing for Congress to intervene in the standoff between the rail carriers and unions, as the Biden administration tries to cajole negotiators into an agreement before a devastating shutdown of the nation’s railroads.

Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have introduced legislation that would force both sides to accept the contract recommendations made last month by a nonpartisan panel appointed by President Biden.

The unions have rejected those recommendations because they do not address workers’ fury over company penalties for missing time due to illness or family emergencies.

Republicans said they still prefer a voluntary deal between unions and railroads over a congressional intervention.

The legislation would not codify the board’s recommendations until the deadline is reached on Friday.

Seeking to resolve the impasse, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is hosting emerging meetings of the rail carriers and unions in Washington on Wednesday.

But should those talks fail, Republicans are prepared to advance legislation that would force workers to accept the board’s recommendations.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that he supports adoption of the board’s recommendations and called on the president to do so the same.

Democratic lawmakers have largely entrusted the Biden administration to reach a deal, and it’s not clear if they would support the GOP’s legislation, against the wishes of labor unions, should the impasse reach that point.

“The president’s board has made a recommendation as to how this should be settled, and unless he’s changed his position the president apparently supports the position of the presidential board,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “That seems to me to be the perfect place to get the strike settled.”

Biden aides have sought to resolve the conflict between the rail carriers and unions to avert the possibility of one of the most disruptive strikes in recent U.S. history.

The deadline to reach an agreement is after midnight on Friday, when workers could strike or employers could impose a lockout that prevents employees from doing their jobs.

The stakes of the talks are high for the Biden administration, which is desperate to ensure America’s trains keep running but also does not want to undermine the demands of union workers.

Walsh, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have been in frequent communication with both sides of negotiations, and Biden has also personally called the unions and carriers to urge a deal.

Labor Department officials said in a statement that the “hands-on effort” would be held at the department’s offices in Washington, D.C.

The remaining issues under dispute revolve around points-based attendance policies for conductors and engineers that penalize them for going to routine doctor visitors or responding to family medical emergencies.

The two largest and politically powerful railway unions have said their members would not ratify a contract that does not address this issue, and so far the railroads have not made any movement on the matter.

It is unclear how Walsh or the administration plans to untangle the difficult impasse.

The congressional jockeying comes amid a new poll that suggests most workers of one of the biggest railroad unions are prepared to reject the deal under consideration.

A poll by SMART-TED, one of the biggest railroad unions, found that 78 percent of workers would reject the proposed settlement.

“I know for sure with covid out there nobody is even testing themselves because they don’t want to lose points,” said Jordan Boone, 41, a BNSF conductor in Galesburg, Illinois, and member of SMART-TED.

“I have five kids, and I’ve always missed the kids’ soccer and baseball games and cheerleading, but the new attendance policies make it impossible to go to anything.”

Democrats are highly unlikely to approve legislation mandating that workers accept the contract recommendations without changes to time off policy, said Larry Cohen, a labor leader and former president of the Communications Workers of America.

“Democrats are not going to impose these contracts without dealing with the issue of workers’ working lives,” Cohen said. “Republicans are viciously against collective bargaining, but carriers are going to have to respect people’s lives and there’s going to have to be respect for these workers. They’re not getting a settlement without it.”

Still, political pressure is mounting on Democrats to agree to end the standoff.

White House aides have in recent days examined the potentially drastic impacts to the nation’s drinking water and energy supplies that could come from a shutdown.

“If it’s a day or two, it may not be that big a deal. If this went on for a week or two week, you’d see shortages of all sorts of things,” said Dean Baker, a White House ally and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank.

“You’re going to have erratic shortfalls – they’re trying hard to do this but it’s really hard to do on the fly. It’s not like they’ve been planning this for years.”

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