WASHINGTON — Congress acted on Thursday to avert a nationwide rail strike, clearing legislation personally requested by President Biden that would impose a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers.
Mr. Biden had urged congressional leaders to move fast as railway workers have threatened to stop working if they fail to reach an agreement by a Dec. 9 deadline, a disruption that could cost the economy an estimated $2 billion a day and hurt consumers.
The Biden administration intervened in the dispute earlier this year and negotiated a tentative agreement to increase worker pay and set more flexible schedules, but four out of 12 unions voted it down, leaving the freight railroads and the unions at an impasse.
Here’s how and why Congress is getting involved.
What does Congress have to do with a labor dispute?
Congress has the power under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, and the Supreme Court has ruled that that includes the authority to intervene in railway labor disputes that threaten trade across state lines.
The Railway Labor Act, enacted in 1926, allows the president to intervene in disputes that “threaten substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service,” as Mr. Biden did in September. But since that statute was enacted, Congress has had to step in 18 times to avert a work stoppage.
That is what lawmakers did this week.
What’s in the deal that Congress imposed?
The agreement the Biden administration helped to broker would include a 24 percent increase in wages in the five years from 2020 through 2024.
In addition, it gave workers one additional paid day off and an ability to attend medical appointments without penalty, measures that were intended to ease what workers said was a rigid scheduling system that did not allow them to take care of their health or take personal time they needed.
But it did not include paid sick leave, and it effectively required that employees use unpaid time off to attend medical appointments.
What would have happened if the bill didn’t pass?
Freight rail carriers are the second-largest mode of freight transport in the United States. More than a quarter of U.S. freight before the pandemic was transported by railway, according to federal data. This includes important commodities like coal, lumber, ore and chemicals.
Had no agreement been reached, a strike could have brought domestic transportation of these commodities to a grinding halt during one of the busiest times of the year for carriers, making it nearly impossible to transport products like oil and grain. It would also have a devastating effect on the nation’s economic recovery after the pandemic.
It would also leave railway workers, who have been working without a new contract since 2020, without improvements to pay and benefits that they have bargained for.
Why would Democrats, who are generally pro-labor, try to force an agreement on workers?
Mr. Biden and the Democrats who control Congress have said that they do not relish imposing an agreement, but that doing so is necessary to avert the dire economic damage that a rail strike could cause.
But many progressives balked at voting to force workers to accept an agreement that many of their unions had rejected because they believed it lacked sufficient paid leave. Bowing to pressure from those Democrats, some of whom had threatened to withhold their votes and block the agreement from being considered at all, House leaders also put forth a bill to add seven days of paid sick time to the contract.
It passed the House, mostly along party lines, but failed in the Senate.
Why can’t railroads reach an agreement with the unions?
Like many industries recovering from the adverse impact of the pandemic, rail carriers were left with few options for maintaining business levels while dealing with employee shortfalls. Unions complained that, as a result of the labor shortage, carriers mandated that their employees work for long stretches — sometimes spanning weeks at a time — through strict attendance policies.
Industry analysts also say the conflict stems from the focus on lowering expenses like labor costs in the industry’s business model, which has left rail networks with a limited number of ways to work around disruptions like pandemics and natural disasters.
Why has sick leave emerged as a sticking point?
Workers say they were pushed to the limit of their mental and physical health because of grueling and unpredictable schedules, and they have demanded more flexible paid leave policies.
Rail carriers have resisted the demands, asserting that employees should use paid vacation time to tend to their personal lives and seek medical help. But employees have said the windows in which they can request paid leave have been narrowed and their requests for time off rejected.
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