A freight train at a grade crossing. (Russ Ward | Unsplash)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday signed into law a resolution intended to avert a freight rail strike, based on an agreement reached between some rail unions and freight rail companies.
Several unions did not agree with the deal passed by Congress because it lacked paid sick leave, but Democrats have said the alternative was an unacceptable halt to shipping.
“A rail shutdown would have devastated our economy,” Biden said.
A report by the Association of American Railroads, which is the trade group that represents the railroad carriers, estimated that a railroad strike would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day.
Biden said it was a difficult decision to make, and noted that his administration will continue to push for paid sick leave for workers and “that fight isn’t over.”
“It was a tough (decision) for me, and it was the right thing to do at the moment,” Biden said.
Congress has the authority to intervene under the Railway Labor Act, which governs disputes between railway carriers and labor unions.
The deal that Biden called on Congress earlier this week to ratify did not address the sticking point for the unions — scheduling requirements that prevent workers from taking time off for medical reasons.
“The ask for sick leave was not out of preference, but rather out of necessity,” the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART-TD, said in a statement.
SMART-TD union members voted against ratification of the tentative agreement.
“No American worker should ever have to face the decision of going to work sick, fatigued or mentally unwell versus getting disciplined or being fired by their employer, yet that is exactly what is happening every single day on this nation’s largest freight railroads,” SMART-TD said.
The quick push to ratify the agreement came as the cooling-off period between rail unions and freight companies was set to end Dec. 9, meaning the unions could legally strike.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was also involved in talks, said in a statement that “a rail shutdown would have had significant and long-lasting effects on American food and agriculture and would have been devastating to the nation’s economy.”
Walsh, Buttigieg and Vilsack joined Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing of the White House as he signed the agreement.
The rail unions and freight companies have been negotiating since 2019.
Eight of the 12 voted to adopt and ratify the union’s tentative agreement, but for an agreement to be finalized, all 12 unions — representing 115,000 workers — must back it.
The House voted earlier this week to codify the tentative agreement reached in September, and separately added seven days for paid sick leave. Workers asked for 15 days, and the White House, which stepped in to negotiate, suggested the unions drop a request for paid leave and accept one additional personal day off.
The tentative agreement that Biden signed would give workers a 24% raise over five years, from 2020 to 2024; one additional personal day; and some protection from the rail carriers’ punitive attendance policies so that workers can take time off for medical needs without fear of discipline.
The Senate vote fell short of enough support to include seven days of paid sick leave for workers.
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