Everything that Americans produce or import has to be transported from one place to another, usually by rail or truck, and often in part by both. The freight train has the specific job of moving heavy and bulky goods and commodities such as crude oil and coal, chemicals, large machinery, fabricated metals, and many food products that every American depends on.
For any extended period, a strike would cripple the economy. That’s why nearly 450 business groups this week told Congress that action to prevent a freight train strike was a matter of “grave urgency.”
If these freight trains stop running over the holiday season and beyond, it could lead to supply chain problems like Covid, on steroids. However, the railway unions have been threatening a strike in the coming days because they are not satisfied with a proposed labor contract. Very quickly, such a work stoppage would produce severe costs for industries from food production and automobiles to mining and utilities, along with their employees and customers.
It could also strand millions of commuters and other commuters whose transit system uses tracks owned by freight rail companies and operated and maintained by their union employees, as a strike would suspend their operations and maintenance. For any extended period, a strike would cripple the economy.
That’s why nearly 450 business groups said this week Congress that action to prevent a rail freight strike it was a matter of “grave urgency”. Washington is right to listen to them. The federal government has the power to pass laws that block the strike and impose a new contract. While doing so might seem like a violation of the pro-labour leanings of a Democratic-controlled White House, Senate and House, administration leaders and both parties on Capitol Hill must force holdouts to accept the contract on the table.
Thankfully, President Joe Biden He spoke out Monday when he called on Congress to pass legislation implementing the labor agreement between freight rail companies and union leaders that his administration helped negotiate in September. Members of eight of those unions approved the dealwhile members of the other four rejected it.
“As a proud pro-Labor president, I am reluctant to nullify the ratification procedures and the opinions of those who voted against the agreement”, Biden said. “But in this case, where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of workers and families, I think Congress should use its powers to adopt this deal.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced, with his chamber voting on Wednesday to force acceptance of the contract. The Senate is now doing the same, after which Biden was expected to sign the measure into law.
Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, the federal government has the authority to protect interstate commerce by regulating railroad union contracts (airlines added in 1936). In the last 60 years, Congress has used that law five times to pass laws mandating railroad union contracts, most recently in 1991. The current stalemate comes after two years of negotiations on wage and benefit issues, followed by an unsuccessful arbitration by the National Mediation Board.
Faced with the threat of a nationwide work stoppage, Biden created an emergency board of expert arbitrators to manage new negotiations and find an agreement acceptable to both parties. In Congress, both Republicans and Democrats supported the measure.
It seemed to work: The talks produced pacts in September for the 12 unions under which the railway companies agreed to levy average employee compensation at $110,000including an immediate 14% increase and a further 10% increase by 2024. The settlements also protect health care benefits considered generous by most industry standards, based largely on the recommendations of the arbitrator of Biden and enhanced by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
The four unions that rejected the terms oppose a deal their own leaders and negotiators agreed to, citing issues related to paid sick leave. But the railway companies provide sick leave benefits based on post-contract discussions between each company and their unions. In addition, the Presidential Emergency Board overseeing the negotiations noted that unresolved union demands for sick leave were factored into wage recommendations, and that workers receive a significant number of personal days and vacation days that also can use.
Unless the resisting union members change their minds, which now seems unlikely, Congress is doing the right thing by stepping in to block a strike and enforce the deal.
That’s what’s required when the operations of part of the economy’s vital economic infrastructure are at stake, regardless of the political party that rules Congress or the White House. After all, few would question government intervention to stop a strike that threatened people’s access to clean water or electricity. Intervening in the current rail dispute is no small feat for organized workers given the historic benefits provided under the new rail worker contracts.
When something as vital as rail transport is at stake, we must prioritize the needs of our basic economic infrastructure and be prepared to protect the economy from serious disruptions to its operations, even if it means breaking up a strike. Today, that is freight rail service.