Rail strike to be averted: Biden to sign bill

President Joe Biden is signing a bill Friday to avert a freight rail strike that he said could have plunged the US into recession.

The White House said that Biden would sign a measure passed Thursday by the Senate and Wednesday by the House that binds rail companies and workers to a proposed settlement that was reached between the rail companies and union leaders in September.

Members in four of the 12 unions involved rejected the proposed contract, creating the risk of a strike beginning Dec. 9 that the government has likely staved off with the bill signing. A freight rail strike also would have a big potential impact on passenger rail, with Amtrak and many commuter railroads relying on tracks owned by the freight railroads.

The president has said that a strike would have sunk the US economy, causing roughly 750,000 job losses as the work stoppage ruptured supply chains for basic goods, food and the chemicals needed to ensure clean drinking water.

Rising prices already have many Americans afraid of a coming downturn, but the US job market has been steady. The government reported Friday that employers added 263,000 jobs in November as the unemployment rate held at 3.7 per cent.

Though Biden is a staunch union ally, he said the rail order was necessary to prevent a strike.

The Biden administration helped broker deals between the railroads and union leaders in September, but four of the unions rejected the deals. Eight others approved five-year deals and all 12 are getting back pay for their workers for the 24 per cent raises that are retroactive to 2020.

But the absence of a meaningful increase in paid sick leave and other quality-of-life issues was a key concern for many union members whose votes were required for the settlement. The railroads say the unions have agreed in negotiations over the decades to forgo paid sick time in favour of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits. Union members say railroads could afford the paid leave given their profit margins.

House Democrats narrowly adopted a measure to add seven days of paid sick leave to the tentative agreement, but that change fell eight votes shy of the 60-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.