capitol © Joseph Gough |
© Joseph Gough

President Biden’s call to US Congress to introduce legislation to forestall a crippling rail stoppage has proved successful.

The US House of Representatives yesterday agreed to impose terms to end the long-lasting stalemate in negotiations between rail carriers and labour, and now it is up to the Senate to approve the measures, which could happen this week.

Since members of four of the 12 rail unions involved rejected a contract agreement reached in September, the clock has been ticking toward a stoppage that could commence as early as 9 December.

But, with the rail operators’ planning to begin winding down operations earlier, in preparation, disruption could likely occur even sooner.

Contract negotiations began in January 2020, but soon reached an impasse that federal mediation was unable to resolve. Faced with the prospect of a strike, the White House set up a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to broker a deal, which was agreed by some unions in early September.

However, members of four unions voted down the proposed contract, primarily on issues of sick leave, which had not been included.

The carriers have rejected calls for concessions on this side, arguing this was not part of the agreement and that individual union agrteements with carriers provided various degrees of sick leave provision.

To facilitate passage through Congress, two bills were tabled yesterday. The first calls for the imposition of the deal agreed in September, while the second proposes seven days’ paid sick leave a year for rail workers, added after representatives said they would not vote in favour of a bill that imposed terms on labour without some concession to workers’ rejection of the agreement.

The main bill passed in a bipartisan vote, with 290 delegates in favour and 137 opposed. The supplemental bill passed by a narrower margin, of 221 votes in favour and 207 against.

President Biden said: “Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin,” he said. “The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately.”

The Senate is expected to agree imposition of the agreement, but it is unclear how it will deal with the additional legislation calling for blanket seven-day sick leave provision. The chamber could, theoretically, ignore this proposal, but some senators have signalled that they would not support the main bill on its own.

The carriers have pushed back against the sick leave provision.

“All rail employees have access to several leave policies, including sick leave, said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

Industry bodies, however, have echoed the president’s call for immediate action by the Senate. Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said: “We commend the swift action to approve this critical piece of legislation and prevent a potential catastrophic freight rail shutdown that could cost the economy $2bn a day.

“It is imperative that the Senate now acts immediately. Until the tentative agreement is in place, US economic security remains in jeopardy,” he added.

American Apparel & Footwear Association president and CEO Stephen Lamar said: “Already we are seeing companies scrambling to divert cargo to other distressed logistics modes, such as trucking, exacerbating those strained links in our supply chain.

“Our supply chain remains too fragile for this kind of brinkmanship and it is imperative that all logistics stakeholders continue to work together to support modern and efficient systems, and ensure there are safe and responsible workplaces that power them.”

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.