White House scrambles to avert looming railroad strike

White House officials are holding emergency meetings in a desperate scramble to avert a nationwide railroad strike days before much of the country’s transportation infrastructure shuts down, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Biden administration officials have begun preparing for a potential shutdown and have warned a strike could seriously harm the US economy, while warning it could hurt Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. , said two of the people. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh participated in meetings led by the White House National Economic Council last week, and President Biden is also following the matter personally, the two people said. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also involved in trying to broker the standoff.

The standoff pits two of Biden’s top priorities against each other. The president has been a strong advocate for unionized workers, but does not want a breakdown in the nation’s transportation infrastructure that would disrupt commuter and passenger services.

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The administration has little time to act: The nationwide railroad shutdown is due to take effect on Friday, and unions and management are at an impasse over tough issues such as sick leave and penalties for missing work .

The freight industry has warned that the first national railroad strike in decades would shut down 30% of the nation’s freight and “most passenger and commuter rail services.” The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters, announced a tentative agreement with the national rail carriers on Sunday, leaving only two of 12 unions without an agreement in place. But they are the two largest railway unions in the country, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors.

Concerns about the political impact of a workforce shutdown also extend to parts of the administration. Farmers’ groups have been calling for a deal to be reached soon, as their operations could be badly affected. The administration has previously come under fire for its handling of the country’s transportation infrastructure, which was wracked last year by supply chain problems and this year by an increase in cancellations and delays at airports across the country. country. Some administration officials fear spoiling Biden’s economic victories in August that helped boost Democrats’ poll numbers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, has estimated that no deal could cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion a day in lost economic output. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark said Monday that a strike would be an “economic disaster” with “catastrophic economic impacts,” calling for urgent action to resolve the dead end.

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

Yet the president has made support for unions one of his administration’s top priorities. Many Biden aides are sensitive to labor complaints about poor working conditions and unfair treatment by management, and are reluctant to lean too aggressively on union leaders to end the strike.

At issue is the recommendation of the Emergency Presidential Council, which is led by three Biden appointees. The board outlined pay rises and annual bonuses in a 124-page report that fell between union and management demands, and was generous enough to remove 10 of the unions that represent a subset railway workers who do not operate trains.

But the other two unions due to strike are exasperated by the lack of strong proposals from the board on certain working conditions they say are “life destroying” for their members, such as furlough sanctions. Labor groups say engineers and drivers have been fired for attending routine medical appointments or funerals of family members, and can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break, up to 12 hours. They are also not entitled to sick days.

“We are faced with the possibility of a strike because the railroad refuses to grant a single day of sick leave,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, l one of the unions that did not reach an agreement. “It’s about the phone ringing at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m. after only 10 hours of rest beforehand. It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being punished with disciplinary action up to and including dismissal if you have to go to the doctor.

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