What to Know in Washington: Rail Strike Threat Presses Congress

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Several powerful industry groups are urging Congress to step in and prevent a rail strike ahead of the holiday season if railway unions don’t agree to a labor pact.

The nation’s two largest railway unions held conflicting votes — whose results were announced Monday — on the labor deal, increasing the threat of a strike next month. Congress will need to step in if unions and railroads fail to reach an agreement before the cooling-off period ends in December, retail, agriculture, and consumer brands trade groups said Monday.

Members of Congress will have to decide what to do when they return from their Thanksgiving break. Democrats have been wary of intervening in labor disputes, but industries are warning of economic consequences if they can’t move goods ahead of the holidays.

“I’m hoping the railroads will get reasonable, this is the 21st Century and to have skilled workers being denied sick leave, even unpaid sick leave, is unconscionable,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an emailed statement Monday. “Freight rail companies are watching their record profits, ‘Oh my God, if we give people paid sick leave our stock might drop by a dollar.’ Give me a break.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.)

The US Chamber of Commerce used the rejected vote to urge Congress to act, arguing the issue should be lawmakers’ top priority. The Consumer Brands Association, which represents packaged goods makers, and the National Grain and Feed Association also said Monday they want lawmakers to prevent a strike through legislative action.

“A voluntary agreement between the railroads and 12 unions remains a best-case scenario, but an increasingly unlikely one,” Tom Madrecki, vice president of supply chain and logistics at the brands association, wrote to lawmakers. “Playing a game of chicken with consumers’ access to everyday essential products is a risky proposition.”

Congress can pass legislation to keep the railroads operating under the Railway Labor Act. Lawmakers have previously intervened in labor negotiations. Read more.

Railway Labor Standoff Tests Biden’s Clout with Unions, Workers

The rank-and-file union rejection may force the president to choose between organized labor and big business before a Dec. 9 strike date. In doing so, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats risk betraying organized labor, a group that just helped them retain the majority in the Senate and will be crucial to Biden’s re-election prospects in 2024.

“It’s a vice of the Democratic Party’s own making,” said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, an independent group that opposes the tentative agreement and lawmakers’ intervention. “If we’re defeated, an injury to one is an injury to all.”

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To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brandon Lee at blee@bgov.com

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