Biden ‘confident’ that US can avoid rail strike if Congress intervenes

Biden ‘confident’ that US can avoid rail strike if Congress intervenes

President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he was “confident” that the US can avoid a crippling strike by railroad workers if Congress acts on his request to pass legislation forcing adoption of an agreement his administration helped negotiate in September.

Speaking in the White House’s Roosevelt Room at the start of a meeting with House and Senate leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties, Mr Biden said the decision to intervene was “not an easy call” but stressed that Congress “has to act” because the US economy would be risk if railroad workers were to walk off the job.

Asked if he was confident that a strike could be averted, the president said he was in fact “confident” but he was then drowned out by press aides who shouted over reporters to prevent them from asking questions as they were ushered out of the room.

The president added that he hopes the White House and congressional leaders can “work together” to pass legislation to fund the government through the end of the 2023 fiscal year, including appropriations for Covid relief and defence assistance for Ukraine.

“We're going to find other areas of common ground, I hope, because the American people want us to work together,” he said.

Mr Biden’s remarks come less than 24 hours after he called on Congress to “immediately” pass legislation forcing railroad unions and operators to adopt the September agreement “without modification or delay” in order to prevent freight and passenger railroad networks across the US from having to shut down.

In a statement, the president said a strike by rail workers would “devastate” the US economy.

“Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down. My economic advisors report that as many as 765,000 Americans – many union workers themselves – could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone. Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock,” he said.

Mr Biden added that he was “reluctant” to override the normal process by which labour unions ratify collective bargaining agreements because of his self-described status as a “proud pro-labour” leader. As a senator, Mr Biden was one of a handful of US legislators to oppose a similar course of action when Congress voted on a bill to avert a railroad strike in 1992.

But the president said he believes Congress “must use its powers” to force adoption of the agreement because “the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families”.

“At this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown,” he added.

The legislation now favoured by Mr Biden must pass both the House and Senate and reach his desk for signature before 9 December, the deadline for labour and railroad management to adopt an agreement before workers walk off the job.

Of the 12 separate railroad unions that must approve the agreement, eight have done. But the four remaining unions have rejected the deal, leaving Congressional action as the only course left that would prevent US rail networks from being severely disrupted.

Speaking outside the White House after the conclusion of the meeting with Mr Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had agreed that Congress had to act to “resolve this rail shutdown as quickly as possible”.

Ms Pelosi added that she does not like “going against the ability of the unions to strike” but she said a strike “must” be avoided after having “weigh[ed] the equities”.

“Tomorrow morning in the House, we'll bring up the legislation and send it over to the Senate,” she said. Mr Schumer responded that he and Mr McConnell have agreed to “try and get it done [as soon as possible]”.

But some Democratic Senators sounded cagey about any agreement. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, told reporters that he would demand a vote to guarantee workers get sick leave.

“Workers should not be penalized for coming down with Covid, or for being with their wife when they give birth,” Mr Sanders told reporters.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told reporters that Mr Biden is the most pro-labour Democratic president but said he hadn’t read the text.

“I haven't seen it specifically yet, but I'm generally supportive what the president's doing,” he told reporters. “I don't want to start doing what ifs because I don't know.”