Rail strike blocked by Senate, Biden as holiday travel looms

Everything that Americans produce or import has to be transported from one place to another, usually by rail or truck and often partway by both. Freight rail has the specific job of moving heavy, bulky goods and commodities, such as crude oil and coal, chemicals, large machinery, fabricated metals and many foodstuffs on which every American depends.

Over any extended period, a strike would stall out the economy. That’s why nearly 450 business groups this week told Congress that action to avert a freight rail strike was a matter of “grave urgency.”

If these freight trains stop running during the holiday season and beyond, it could result in Covid-type supply chain problems — on steroids. Yet rail unions have been threatening a strike in the coming days because they are dissatisfied with a proposed labor contract. Very quickly, such a work stoppage would produce serious costs for industries from food and auto production to mining and utilities, along with their employees and customers. 

It could also strand millions of commuters and other travelers whose transit system uses tracks owned by freight rail companies and which are operated and maintained by their union employees, as a strike would suspend their operations and maintenance. Over any extended period, a strike would stall out the economy.

That’s why nearly 450 business groups this week told Congress that action to avert a freight rail strike was a matter of “grave urgency.” Washington is right to listen to them. The federal government has the power to pass legislation blocking the strike and imposing a new contract. While doing so might seem to violate the pro-labor leanings of a Democrat-controlled White House, Senate and House of Representatives, leaders in the administration and both parties on Capitol Hill need to force the holdouts to accept the contract on the table.  

Thankfully, President Joe Biden spoke clearly Monday when he called on Congress to pass legislation implementing the labor agreement between the freight railroad companies and the leaders of the labor unions that his administration helped broker in September. The members of eight of those unions endorsed the agreement, while the members of the four others rejected it.  

“As a proud pro-labor president, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obliged, with her chamber voting Wednesday to force the acceptance of the contract. The Senate is now following suit, after which Biden in expected to sign the measure into law. 

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, the federal government has the authority to protect interstate commerce by regulating rail union contracts (airlines were added in 1936). Over the last 60 years, Congress has used that act five times to pass legislation imposing railroad-union contracts, most recently in 1991. The current impasse comes after two years of negotiations over issues of pay and benefits, followed by failed arbitration by the National Mediation Board. 

With the threat of a nationwide work stoppage, Biden created an emergency board of expert arbitrators to manage new negotiations and find a settlement acceptable to both sides. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike supported the move. 

It appeared to work: The talks produced pacts in September for the 12 unions under which the rail companies agreed to raise average employee compensation to $110,000, including an immediate 14% raise and an additional 10% hike by 2024. The agreements also protect health care benefits considered generous by most industry standards, based largely on the Biden arbitrator’s recommendations and sweetened by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

The four unions that rejected the terms are objecting to a pact that their own leaders and negotiators agreed to, citing issues around paid sick leave. But rail companies provide sick leave benefits based on post-contract talks between each company and its unions. Moreover, the Presidential Emergency Board overseeing the negotiations noted that the unions’ unresolved demands on sick leave were taken into account in the wage recommendations, and that workers are given significant numbers of personal days and vacation days that can also be used. 

Unless the holdout union members change their minds — which today appears unlikely — Congress is doing the right thing by stepping in to block a strike and impose the deal.    

That’s what is required when the operations of part of the economy’s vital economic infrastructure are at stake, regardless of which political party runs Congress or holds the White House. After all, few would question the government stepping in to preclude a strike that threatened people’s access to clean water or electricity. Intervening in the current rail dispute is no slight to organized labor given the historic benefits provided under the new rail worker contracts.

When something as vital as rail transportation is at stake, we need to prioritize the needs of our basic economic infrastructure and be prepared to protect the economy from serious interruptions in its operations, even if it means breaking up a strike. Today, that’s freight rail service.

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