October 6, 2022

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White House rushes to avoid looming rail strike

White House officials are holding emergency meetings in a desperate attempt to avert a national rail strike just days away from shutting down much of the country’s transportation infrastructure, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Biden administration officials have begun preparing for a possible shutdown and warned that the strike could seriously damage the US economy, while also warning that it could hurt Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, two people said. The two people said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was part of the meetings led by the White House National Economic Council last week, and President Biden is personally following up on the matter. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also involved in trying to mediate the impasse.

The impasse pits two of Biden’s top priorities against each other. The president has been a stubborn advocate of union workers, but he does not want a collapse of the country’s transportation infrastructure that would disrupt passenger and passenger services.

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The administration has little time to act: A nationwide rail shutdown is set to go into effect on Friday, and work and administration have been in trouble over difficult issues such as sick time and penalties for absenteeism.

The shipping industry has warned The first national rail strike in decades would shut down 30 percent of the country’s freight and “stop most passenger and passenger rail services.” The Brotherhood of Personnel Maintenance, a division of Teamsters, on Sunday announced a tentative agreement with national rail companies, leaving just two of the 12 unions without an agreement. But these are the two largest railway unions in the country, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors.

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Concerns about the political impact of the business shutdown extend to parts of the administration as well. Farmer groups demanded that an agreement be reached quickly, as their operations could be severely affected. The administration has already faced criticism over its handling of the country’s transportation infrastructure, which collapsed last year due to supply chain crises, and this year due to a rise in cancellations and delays at the country’s airports. Some administration officials fear that Biden’s economic victories in August that helped boost Democrats’ numbers in the polls may be squandered.

The Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, has estimated that failure to reach an agreement could cost the US economy up to $2 billion a day in lost economic output. US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Susan B. Clark said Monday that the strike would be an “economic disaster” with “disastrous economic impacts,” calling for urgent action to resolve the crisis.

“The last thing they want right now is a major strike in a key sector like this,” said Dean Baker, a White House ally, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economics and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “I think Biden is going to push really hard for a deal. He’s supposed to pay the employer side but I’m sure he’ll push the union side as well…although there is a question of how hard it will be to pay workers.”

However, the president has made union support a top priority throughout his administration. Many Biden aides sympathize with workers’ complaints of poor working conditions and unfair treatment by management, and are reluctant to rely heavily on labor leaders to end the strike.

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The subject of contention is the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Council, which is run by three Biden appointees. The council outlined the annual wage and bonus increases in a 124-page report that were between union demands and management, and were generous enough to peel back 10 labor unions that are a subset of rail workers who don’t operate trains.

But the two remaining unions due to go on strike are angry at the lack of strong proposals from the board of directors regarding certain working conditions they say are “destroying the lives” of their members, such as facing penalties for taking any leave. Working groups say engineers and conductors have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family members’ funerals, and can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break, for up to 12 hours. They also don’t get sick days.

“We are facing the possibility of a strike because the railway is refusing to give a single day of sick leave,” said Ron Kamenko, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Trainmen Engineers, one of the unions that did not reach an agreement. “It’s about ringing the phone at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m. just 10 hours after the previous rest. It’s about not knowing when you’re going home and being punished with discipline until firing if you need to go to the doctor.”