United States congressional leaders have expressed support for quickly ending a threatened rail workers’ strike that could sow chaos in the US economy.
Speaking at the White House after a meeting with President Joe Biden Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the leaders of both his Democratic party and the Republicans support turning to a rarely used legislative power to resolve the union dispute.
Biden had warned Monday of a catastrophic economic impact if railroad services ground to a halt, saying up to 765,000 Americans “could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone”.
At Tuesday’s White House meeting, the president was asked if he was confident he could avert a rail strike and responded with: “I am confident.”
“All four of us agreed we’ve got to resolve this rail shutdown as quickly as possible,” Schumer said, adding that senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell “agreed to try to get it done ASAP”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said the lower chamber would vote Wednesday on forcing unions to accept a deal averting a strike. It would then go to the Senate.
A strike by freight rail workers, who are integral to US supply chains, is expected to start December 9 unless Congress intervenes. Legislators would effectively be forcing hold-outs to accept a September preliminary deal on increased wages agreed to by a majority of unions.
Workers in four rail unions 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 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the country’s economy as much as $2bn per day by unleashing a cascade of transport woes affecting the energy, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and retail sectors.
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 illnesses. 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 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 railroad labour standoff. Biden hailed the contract deal, which includes a 24 percent compounded wage increase over five years from 2020 through 2024 and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.
Biden had called the White House meeting to discuss the “lame duck” session of Congress ahead of January when Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives, after their narrow win in November’s midterm elections. Democrats will retain a thin majority in the Senate.
The White House said Biden and the congressional leaders also discussed maintaining funding for the US government and unprecedented military aid for Ukraine in its fight against Russian invasion.
Biden, who faces the next two years of his first term with Republicans blocking his legislation in the House, offered an olive branch, according to the White House.
He told his “Republican colleagues that whatever disagreements they may have, he is always interested in finding new common ground, and that he has an open door to hear their perspectives,” the statement said.