Home 5 Ag Stories President Biden asks Congress to “step in” over looming rail strike

President Biden asks Congress to “step in” over looming rail strike

UP #5312 crosses in Boone, IA. Photo by Dustin Hoffmann

Monday was a busy day in the saga of the impending strike of railroad workers. December 9th is the final day for the unions and the railroad companies to reach an agreement over new contracts for workers. In September, it looked as though President Biden had helped broker a deal between the two sides that would avoid a strike. However, since then members of four of the twelve railroad workers’ unions have voted down the measure.

According to the Washington Post: “The main sticking points for rank-and-file members have been points-based attendance policies that penalize workers for taking time off when they are sick or for personal time, and contribute to grueling, unpredictable schedules that weigh on workers’ mental and physical health, they say. In June, a 51-year-old union engineer put off a doctor’s visit, and died of a heart attack on a train weeks later, his family said.”

If the four unions decide to strike on December 9th, the other eight would strike in a show of solidarity. Two-thirds of the groups kowtowing to the wishes of the other third. In this mix, the two most powerful rail unions are split. According to NPR news, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, representing roughly 23,000 workers, voted to ratify the deal with 53.5% of the vote. But SMART Transportation Division, representing 28,000 conductors, brakemen, yardmen, and others, rejected the agreement, with 50.87% voting no.

A strike was expected in the first part of November, but that deadline was pushed back until December 9th, to buy more time for talks. As the 11th hour is upon us once again, companies, organizations, and even the White House are urging that the “nuclear option” be exercised.

On Monday more than 400 organizations and companies asked the U.S. Government to intervene in the situation. This list included the American Farm Bureau Federation, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Restaurant Association, and the American Trucking Association.

President Biden consulted with his cabinet on Monday, especially with those who have been most involved in trying to broker a deal; Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. After that meeting, the President called on Congress to step in.

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress can intervene in the case of a railway strike to impose a contract on the railroads to block or stop a rail strike.

During yesterday’s White House Press Briefing, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre talked about the President’s call for Congress to use its authority to force the rail workers to keep working. Something that has happened multiple times in the past 60+ years.

The economic impact of a strike would be catastrophic. Losses would be in the billions per day and shut down roughly 30% of the nation’s commerce and industry. Earlier this month we spoke with former USDA Farm Service Agency Head Richard Fordyce, and he told IARN about the situation that was coming to a fever-pitch and ready to boil over.

Fordyce talked about the impact that would be felt on the agriculture industry alone. We rely on rails to get our grains to market, but also bring them to feed mills, which allow us to feed livestock. This would put an unneeded burden on the trucking industry to try and keep up. That’s not to mention the problems we would have getting our inputs to us.

Fordyce admits that he tends to look at the situation strictly from agriculture’s point of view. However, we aren’t the only sector of the economy that stands to face a huge economic impact if the rails shut down. Because of this, he is certain that Congress won’t let this happen.

Last week, when we talked with Iowa Senator Joni Ernst about the situation, she said she was hopeful that a deal could be worked out. That this was not a partisan issue, but an issue that would affect the entire country. That economic issue would come with a very hefty price tag.

Ernst told us that the unions, the railroads, and the administration needed to find a solution that would benefit hard-working Americans. She said that she would have preferred to not have to see Congress intervene in this situation.

Even though the strike wouldn’t happen until December 9th, the railroads would start to prepare as early as December 5th. They would be moving crews close to home, getting toxic chemicals and perishable items off the rail as quickly as possible. Non-volatile or non-perishable items would be parked in rail yards around the country. This would mean that the disruptions would already be commencing five days prior to any strike.

United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued the following statement after the President asked Congress to intervene.

“I take seriously overriding the 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 American agriculture and millions of other working people and families –Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal. There is no time to waste on political gamesmanship or the search for a more perfect resolution.

“I join the President in calling on Congress to quickly pass legislation adopting the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators – without any modifications or delay – to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.

“The U.S. food and agricultural industry relies heavily on rail networks for the transport of inputs and raw materials and for taking products to market. A rail shutdown would have significant and long-lasting effects on some sectors of American food and agriculture and could be devastating to parts of our economy.”

It wouldn’t just be goods that would be suffering if a rail strike happens. Over seven million Americans rely on passenger and commuter trains to get to work and around the country every day.

President Biden has called on Congress to put party politics aside and work for the good of all of America. He said he was a “proud, pro-worker President” and he didn’t want to make it a habit to overturn the votes of unionized workers, but he also said that there was so much progress in the September deal that it would provide for many of the concerns workers had, without crippling the U.S. economy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to take up the issue in the House of Representatives this week, to help prevent a work stoppage. The Senate could get the measure from the House as early as this week.

But in the Senate, it’s a little more complicated. The Senate is expected to hold a vote to break the bill’s filibuster to prevent a possible rail strike, according to sources. It is possible that they will pass the 60-vote threshold with the help of at least ten Republicans. Sources are watching closely to see if Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will waver in his resistance to a speedy vote. It only will take the voice of one Senator out of 100 to kill the chance of a quick vote.