President Joe Biden is calling upon Congress to prevent a rail strike — and in doing so, hinting that the rail unions pursue another venue besides contract talks to air grievances over issues such as sick leave.

Biden urged Congress to pass a bill that would compel the railroads and the unions to adopt the new agreement and to do so “well in advance of December 9th so we can avoid disruption.”

Stakeholders are watching whether members of the four unions that have rejected ratifying their labor agreements will go on strike on Dec. 9 over sticking points, such as sick leave. 

All four unions — the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way-Employes Division (BMWED), the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) — are currently at the negotiation table with the freight railroads, and both sides have until Dec. 8 to reach a new labor agreement that would build upon the one that was rejected. These unions represent over 56% of unionized railroad workers affected by contract talks.

Observers have questioned whether Congress could pass legislation that would address sick leave — a key sticking point for the unions — in addition to requiring that the railroads and the unions adopt the labor contracts that had been negotiated on their behalf in September.

But Biden urged both sides to adopt the contracts that build upon the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a three-member independent panel appointed by Biden this summer to receive testimony from the parties and provide possible remedies that could resolve outstanding issues between the railroads and the unions.

The PEB had opted not to address extensively the issue of how the railroads should set up sick leave benefits within the collective bargaining agreement framework, advising instead that the issue be addressed in the grievance and arbitration process. 

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override 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 millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal,” Biden said in a statement released late Monday.

“Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides,” Biden said.

He continued: “I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member. No one should have to choose between their job and their health — or the health of their children. I have pressed legislation and proposals to advance the cause of paid leave in my two years in office, and will continue to do so. Every other developed country in the world has such protections for its workers. 

“But at this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

Biden’s comments come as more than 400 trade groups warned congressional leaders in a Monday letter of devastating economic impacts should there be a rail strike. 

The railroads have argued that the contract already ratified by eight other rail unions boost average employee compensation and benefits to more than $160,000 by providing 24% wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 to 2024. 

A new labor deal for union members has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations with the railroads soon failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. Then Biden appointed the PEB to take in testimony and provide recommendations that would serve as a starting point for a new labor agreement.

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