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Biden calls for Congress to act to stop rail strike

President seeks quick action to codify tentative agreement

A BNSF freight train locomotive travels across a railroad crossing in Williams, Ariz., on July 6.
A BNSF freight train locomotive travels across a railroad crossing in Williams, Ariz., on July 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden said Monday that he wants Congress to step in to avert a major railroad strike.

“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators — without any modifications or delay — to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown,” the president said in a statement.

“This agreement was approved by labor and management negotiators in September,” the president said. “On the day that it was announced, labor leaders, business leaders, and elected officials all hailed it as a fair resolution of the dispute between the hard-working men and women of the rail freight unions and the companies in that industry.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would do just that.

“This week, the House will take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement – with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms – and send it to the Senate,” she said in a statement.

Earlier in the evening, a key Republican senator said Biden is likely to get the needed support.

“The president says he’s going to ask Congress to act,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “I would expect Congress to support that request.”

Wicker, the ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has been among the lawmakers pushing for a legislative resolution to the contractual disagreement between major freight railways and some of the dozen unions about a new contract. Wicker wants Congress to enforce the provisions of the proposal from a Presidential Emergency Board appointed by Biden, which four of the unions have now rejected.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had earlier declined to confirm a report from The Washington Post that Biden would in fact call for Congress to act, as it has the power to do under the Railway Labor Act, to stop a strike. But the press secretary certainly did not rule out the idea ahead of a Dec. 9 deadline.

“The president is directly involved in the process and has been engaged with his team, and also has had conversation with members of Congress on this particular issue in case — in case resolving the issue — in case resolving the issue falls to them, as it has 18 times in the last 60 years, as you know,” she said.

Jean-Pierre said that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg were among the administration officials having regular conversations with stakeholders to try to get to a resolution.

“The president has been very clear. A shutdown is unacceptable. It will hurt families, communities across the country. It will hurt jobs. It will hurt farms. It will hurt businesses,” she said. “And it should — should not be happening.”

The union membership that has rejected the tentative agreement has cited ongoing concerns about a lack of paid sick days. But Biden, in the statement about the need for Congress to act quickly, rejected the idea of lawmakers reopening the terms of the agreement.

“Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides,” Biden said.

“I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member. No one should have to choose between their job and their health — or the health of their children. I have pressed legislation and proposals to advance the cause of paid leave in my two years in office, and will continue to do so. Every other developed country in the world has such protections for its workers,” the president said.

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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