President Biden on Monday urged Congress to impose a labor agreement brokered by his administration on railroad companies and unions to avert a potentially crippling strike at the height of the holiday season.
Mr. Biden said he would usually side with the right to strike, but a railroad strike presented a special case.
“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,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
The Biden administration negotiated the deal in September, but four influential railroad workers unions rejected it, giving the two sides less than two weeks to avoid a strike before Dec. 9 deadline.
Union officials have warned that an agreement is increasingly unlikely and said the proposed deal is unfair. They said they wouldn’t approve the Biden-backed agreement because it lacks sick days and continues to penalize workers for taking sick time.
A strike could devastate the U.S. economy by disrupting the supply chain, halting passenger travel and delaying critical materials from reaching water treatment plants during the height of the holiday season.
The momentum has been building behind Congress’ intervention in the railroad union dispute, with few political benefits for either party in allowing a strike at Christmas time.
Mr. Biden said he didn’t want to lean on Congress to solve the crisis but didn’t have a choice. He warned that a rail strike would “hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”
“My economic advisers report that as many as 765,000 Americans — many union workers themselves — could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone. Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock,” he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Mr. Biden was engaged with House lawmakers to prevent a strike. She noted that Congress has acted in the past to avoid rail strikes.
“The president is directly involved in the process and has been engaged with his team and also has had conversations with members of Congress on this particular issue in case resolving the issue falls to them as it has 18 times in the last 60 years,” she said.
Under federal law, Congress can intervene to stop a strike. The last time Congress intervened in a railroad strike was in 1994.
Congress also could force negotiations to continue, which would push the strike deadline past the holidays, or could force both sides to enter arbitration with a third-party mediator.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Monday that the House would consider legislation this week to avoid the rail strike.
“The House will take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement — with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms — and send it to the Senate,” she said in a statement.
Ahead of Mr. Biden’s plea, some union groups have been lobbying Congress to add paid sick days to the deal before approving it. Other groups representing a variety of business interests have pushed Congress to approve an initial proposal by the Biden administration that excluded paid sick days for workers.
By pressing Congress to act, it is clear that Mr. Biden is feeling the heat to resolve the dispute. On Monday, a coalition of more than 400 business groups sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to intervene and revive talks.
The groups, which included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, warned that even a short-term strike could wreak havoc across the economy. They said the impact would be felt before the Dec. 9 strike deadline because some railroads would stop hauling hazardous materials beforehand, fearing those products would be stranded on the tracks.
“A potential rail strike only adds to the headwinds facing the U.S. economy. A rail stoppage would immediately lead to supply shortages and higher prices,” the letter said.
The groups estimated that halting passenger services, including Amtrak and commuter rail lines, would disrupt up to 7 million travelers per day. Many businesses’ sales would be disrupted in the middle of the critical holiday shopping season.
A similar group of businesses sent Mr. Biden a letter last month urging him to take a more active role in the negotiations.
Four of 12 unions that represent the majority of U.S. rail workers voted down the tentative agreement. The sticking point remains paid sick time and attendance policies.
Mr. Biden insisted that the deal brokered by his administration was a good one. It provided a 24% pay raise by 2024 for rail workers, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on health care premiums. It also granted conductors and engineers up to three unscheduled sick days each year for routine doctor appointments.
In September, when the deal was announced, Mr. Biden said labor and business leaders “hailed it as a fair resolution of the dispute.”
The unions said it wasn’t good enough. They say they deserve paid sick time and more they will receive under the Biden plan.
SMART Transportation Division, a 36,000-member union representing rail conductors, said recent events, including the pandemic, underscore the need for increased sick time. The union underscored its point by noting the death of a 51-year-old engineer who had a heart attack after delaying a doctor’s appointment.
SMART Transportation Division is among the four unions that rejected the deal. Roughly 51% of its members rejected it.
Railroad workers do not receive paid sick time, and it is difficult for them to take time off on short notice. The freight carriers have insisted that those policies are necessary to keep rail lines well staffed and that workers have paid vacation time they can use.
All 12 unions need to approve the agreement for it to be ratified. If one union moves to strike, then all 12, which combined represent more than 115,000 rail workers, would likely vote in solidarity, triggering a nationwide work stoppage.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.