By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Thursday urged the U.S. Senate to quickly pass a bill to block a railroad strike, warning that serious economic disruptions could be felt within days.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to approve a bill to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers. The House also separately voted to require seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers, a measure the White House has not endorsed.
"There is no substitute in the American transportation system for a functioning freight rail network," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNBC. "It wouldn't just bring down our rail system, it would really shutdown our economy."
Buttigieg, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and White House legislative director Louisa Terrell were meeting with Senate Democrats on Thursday to try to convince them to move quickly.
Separate votes are expected this afternoon on the rail and sick leave bills as well as a separate proposal to extend the "cooling off" period before workers could go on strike, aides said.
Senator Bernie Sanders and others demanded a separate vote on the sick leave issue as a condition of agreeing to fast-track consideration of the rail contract vote. He denounced railroad companies for refusing to offer paid sick leave.
"They are maybe the worst case of corporate greed that I have seen," Sanders said. "That is really barbaric in the year 2022 in America."
Schumer said he wants to see paid sick leave included in the legislation.
"Senators are working morning, noon and night to reach an agreement for us to act on this measure ASAP," Schumer said. "The Senate cannot leave until we get the job done."
Workers could go on strike as soon as Dec. 9, but the impacts would be felt as soon as this weekend as railroads stop accepting hazardous materials shipments.
A rail strike could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day, and strand millions of passenger railroad Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.
Railroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose amending the contract deal that was struck in September largely on the recommendations of an emergency board appointed by Biden. The American Association of Railroads said the sick leave proposal would "undermine bargaining and artificially add to contracts beyond the scope of the Biden-endorsed agreements."
President Joe Biden on Monday praised the proposed contract that includes a 24% compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments, and had asked Congress to impose the agreement without any modifications.
There are no paid short-term sick days under the tentative deal after unions asked for 15 and railroads settled on one personal day.
Eight of 12 unions have ratified the deal. But some labor leaders have criticized Biden for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.
The contracts cover workers at carriers including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway Inc's BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern Corp and Kansas City Southern.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Moira WarburtonEditing by Bill Berkrot and Alistair Bell)