Thursday, September 21, 2023

Congressional action averts railroad strike

By Elizabeth Poisson Poultry Times staff

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The United States Congress has joined together from both sides of the aisle to avoid a railroad strike. The House of Representatives acted quickly at the request of President Joe Biden.

On Nov. 30, the House passed legislation that would oblige the railroad companies, the 12 unions that rejected the deal and employees to the settlement the was reached back in September.

The Modesto Bee reported, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with democratic senators on Dec. 1 to emphasize that a railroad strike would begin on Dec. 9, and it would send a shockwave through the economy.

Buttigieg said in a CNBC interview, “If there’s even the possibility of a shutdown, about five days in advance of that, the railroads would have to begin winding down their acceptance of things like hazardous material shipments that you can’t allow to get stranded.”

“So my goal today speaking to the senators will be to make sure they understand the implications of a shutdown or even getting close to a shutdown,” he added “It wouldn’t just bring down our rail system. It would really shut down our economy.”

The railroads claimed that if a strike were to ensue, it would cost $2 billion per day. A strike would also affect passenger rail. Amtrak would take a major hit from the potential strike. For democratic politicians, this imposition was hard because they tend to align with big unions.

“A rail shutdown would have had significant and long-lasting effects on American food and agriculture and would have been devastating to the nation’s economy,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a release, adding that, “… U.S. farmers and ranchers, as well as American consumers, can breathe a sigh of relief that the trains will stay on track to deliver food, inputs, raw materials, and other essential items across the nation.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a second vote on Nov. 30 on the piece of legislation which states that workers protected by the agreement are to receive seven days of sick leave annually. The vote passed by 290-137.

As for the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.) said, “Senators are working morning, noon and night to reach an agreement for us to act on this measure ASAP. The Senate cannot leave until we get the job done. And Democrats will keep working with Republicans to find a path forward that everyone can support.”  The Senate passed the bill on Dec. 1 with an 80 to 15 vote. The Railroad Labor Act has been cited to require all the unions to agree to the deal that was made in September.

Supply chain ‘backbone’

After action from congress, President Biden signed H.J.Res.100 into law which avoided a major railroad strike.

“The bill I’m about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what, without a doubt, would have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar,” Biden said. “Our nation’s rail system is literally the backbone of our supply chain, as you all well know. And so much of what we rely on is delivered on our rail, from clean water to food and gas and every — every other good. A rail shutdown would have devastated our economy.

“I want to thank Congress once again for being partners today, for averting this disaster and keeping our economy on a stable footing during the holiday season.”

Some labor union leaders condemned President Biden because of the absence of paid sick leave in the bill. Reuters reported, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien saying on Twitter, “Rail carriers make record profits. Rail workers get zero paid sick days. Is this OK? Paid sick leave is a basic human right. This system is failing.”

President Biden said in response, “It was tough for me but it was the right thing to do at the moment — save jobs, to protect millions of working families from harm and disruption and to keep supply chains stable around the holidays.”

“I know this bill doesn’t have paid sick leave that these rail workers and, frankly, every worker in America deserves, but that fight isn’t over. I didn’t commit we were going to stop just because of — we couldn’t get it in this bill, that we were going to stop fighting for it,” Biden added. “I’ve supported paid sick leave for a long time, and I’m going to continue that fight until we succeed.”

Industry reaction

Before the bill was signed into law, the National Chicken Council, as part of a group of several hundred agricultural associations, wrote a letter to congress in concern for an upcoming rail strike.

The associations letter stated, “Congress recognized their necessity to interstate commerce and America’s economic health with the passage of the Railway Labor Act and past congressional interventions in rail labor disputes when other steps fail. Indeed, Congress has intervened 18 times since 1926 in labor negotiations that threaten interstate commerce and there is no reason why Congress should deviate from this record today.”

The American Feed Industry Association gave credit to congress and President Biden for coming together quickly to avoid a railroad shutdown according to their press statement.  If a strike were to have taken place, it would’ve hurt the health and safety of livestock.

“No one empathizes with the struggles of maintaining a committed workforce like the U.S. animal food industry but slowing or stopping the transport of goods via rail threatens the livelihoods of those hardworking Americans well beyond our nation’s tracks,” Constance Cullman, AFIA president and CEO, said “We thank Congress and the Biden administration for their leadership in brokering a deal that keeps all trains running on time for the greater good of America and the food and agricultural community.”

The Association of American Railroads CEO and President, Ian Jefferies said after the bill was passed, “As we close out this long, challenging process, none of the parties achieved everything they advocated for. The product of these agreements is a compromise by nature, but the result is one of substantial gains for rail employees. More broadly, all rail stakeholders and the economy writ large now have certainty about the path forward.”

“Let’s be clear railroading is tough, essential work that keeps our nation moving, and our employees deserve our gratitude for moving America’s freight and doing so safely every day,” Jefferies added. “The gains in this agreement are significant, including historic wage increases, best-in-class healthcare, and meaningful progress in creating more predictable, scheduled work shifts. Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns, but it is clear this agreement maintains rail’s place among the best jobs in our nation.”

The contract will include the Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF, CSX, Northfolk Southern Corp and Kansas City Southern.

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