The US Congress is preparing to take up legislation to avert a rail strike and prevent major disruptions to supply chains and the economy heading into the holiday shopping season.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said the House would take up the measure as early as Wednesday before sending it to the Senate. President Joe Biden said he was “confident” Congress would pass the bill.
“It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk,” Biden said after meeting with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Tuesday.
Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said they were ready to pass the fix quickly to avert a strike.
“I don’t like going against the ability of the unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike,” Pelosi said.
Political and business leaders are growing increasingly worried about the fallout from a potential strike, which could take place as early as December 9.
However, attempts to avert the strike threaten to undermine Biden’s campaign pledge to be the most “pro-union” president of recent times.
“A railroad strike would be bad,” Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former US labour secretary in the Bill Clinton administration, tweeted. “Congress prohibiting one would be worse.”
In September, the White House brokered a tentative pay deal that was supported by union leaders and the railway companies after weeks of intense negotiations.
However, it was rejected by the workers in four out of 12 affected unions, leading to the prospect of a paralysing strike.
Workers have complained of chronic understaffing and erratic shift scheduling, while demanding better pay and conditions as rail carriers generate substantial profits. Freight rail has grown in importance amid cargo ship backlogs and a shortage of truck drivers.
Union leaders said that they had hoped that the White House would hold off on an announcement until Friday — when rail carriers would have been expected to stop accepting shipments of hazardous materials in preparation for a strike — before making an announcement.
“This is a legacy defining moment for Joe Biden,” worker advocacy group Railroad Workers United wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “He is going down as one of the biggest disappointments in labour history.”
If Congress were to enforce the contract with legislation, it would be the first such step taken by lawmakers to avert a rail strike since George HW Bush’s presidency in 1992.
Almost 450 business groups, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, wrote to congressional leaders this week urging them to “take immediate steps to prevent a national rail strike and the certain economic destruction that would follow”.
The business groups cited estimates from the Association of American Railroads that a stoppage could cost the economy more than $2bn a day.
“A rail strike, coupled with historically high levels of inflation, could wreak financial havoc and inflict catastrophic harm to American businesses, workers, consumers and the US economy,” Matthew Shay, the president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.
The threat of a strike in September prompted interruptions in the delivery of fertilisers, chlorine and other products. Now businesses fear further disruptions to food deliveries and retail supplies during the peak holiday shopping season.
“A shutdown would prevent shipments of security-sensitive and hazardous materials like the chlorine that purifies our drinking water and fuels that power homes, businesses and vehicles,” the Business Roundtable warned on Tuesday.
Some workers accused Biden of betraying their support, saying that the president’s decision to ask Congress to enforce the tentative agreements that had been voted down by unions amounted to him siding with the railroads over workers.
“They feel that they get the short end of it every single round,” said Clark Ballew, an officer at BMWED, one of the unions that rejected the tentative agreement. Biden’s support of the labour movement had made them hopeful that he might stay out of the negotiations.
Still, some union workers hesitated to criticise the White House, saying that the deal Biden and Marty Walsh, the labour secretary, negotiated in September contained several gains for workers including a 24 per cent pay raise during the course of the five-year contract.
“There are reasons why eight of the unions ratified [the agreement],” said Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO department that represents the workers’ unions. “I think the anger at the president is misplaced, to be honest. I think the anger needs to continue to be focused on the railroads and how they operated. They refuse to budge.”