WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden called Monday on Congress to intervene in a labor dispute between unions and operators of the nation's freight railroads to avert what he warned would be a crippling rail strike heading into the holidays.
With a Dec. 9 strike deadline fast approaching, Biden urged Congress to adopt "without any modifications or delay" an agreement brokered by the White House in September between labor unions and rail operators. Four of the 12 unions have voted to reject the five-year agreement, which was intended to avoid a shutdown of the nation's freight rail system.
"A rail shutdown would devastate our economy," Biden said in a statement. "Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down. My economic advisors report that as many as 765,000 Americans - many union workers themselves - could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone. Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock."
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Biden, who is a strong supporter of labor unions, said he is reluctant to override ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. "But in this case - where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families - I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House would vote on the agreement this week and send it to the Senate.
"We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the tentative agreement - but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt," the speaker said.
Pelosi said the House would not change the terms of the agreement.
Last week, SMART Transportation Division, a union representing about 28,000 conductors, rejected the deal, while a separate union representing rail engineers - the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen - voted to ratify the five-year agreement.
The split among the two largest rail unions comes after three smaller unions already rejected the agreement with rail companies. Eight freight rail unions have now approved the agreement, but all 12 must sign on for ratification.
A status quo contract is in place until Dec. 8. SMART-TD can go on strike, or rail companies can lock out workers, beginning Dec. 9 if an agreement is not reached. Congress has the power to intervene to set a contract if parties don't reach a deal.
Biden said the deal provides a historic 24% pay raise for rail workers, as well as improved health care benefits and the ability of operating craft workers to take unscheduled leave for medical needs.
Biden said he shares workers' concerns that they should be able 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," he said.
"But at this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown," Biden said.
The Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing the major freight rail companies, also said the time has come for Congress to take action to head off a strike.
"No one benefits from a rail work stoppage - not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy," said Ian Jefferies, the group's president and chief executive officer.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Joey Garrison
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But in this case, he said, "I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal."
The economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of working people and families, he said.
where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families - I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.
But, he said,
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden calls on Congress to intervene to avoid freight rail strike