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Biden urges Congress to pass legislation to avert nationwide rail strike

The president warned lawmakers that failing to approve the tentative labor agreement could "devastate" the economy just weeks before Christmas.

President Joe Biden on Monday called on lawmakers to quickly approve a labor deal that would avert what he called a “potentially crippling national rail shutdown” as early as Dec. 9.

The tentative agreement, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would vote on this week, aims to prevent a freight strike just two weeks before Christmas, but it has divided workers at two of the country’s biggest rail unions.

Biden urged lawmakers to adopt the tentative deal between railroad workers and operators — "without any modifications or delay" — and warned that the economic repercussions of a shutdown of the country's freight rails would "devastate" the economy.

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”

“Congress should get this bill to my desk well in advance of December 9th so we can avoid disruption,” he added.

Shortly after Biden’s statement, Pelosi said the House would soon consider the tentative agreement.

“This week, 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.

Asked about the potential rail shutdown, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday's briefing that Biden has been “directly involved” in the process and had conversations with members of Congress “in case resolving the issue falls to them."

The tentative agreement, which was approved by labor and management negotiators in September, was rejected by the 28,000-member SMART-TD union, which represents rail conductors, after one of its divisions voted it down. Meanwhile, members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents some 24,000 freight train engineers, voted in favor of the deal.

The deal would provide a 24% pay raise for rail workers over five years and bump the average pay up to $110,000 by 2024, the Association of American Railroads says.

However, several unions have signaled their discontent with the proposed contract, worked out with the help of the White House and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, primarily over its lack of fully paid sick leave and other scheduling requirements.

Four out of a dozen unions representing rail workers have rejected the tentative agreement, but just one union’s decision to strike would require all 12 to honor it, bringing the system to a halt.

In a letter to congressional leaders Monday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that a stoppage in rail service of any duration "would be extremely damaging to American families and our economy." The major lobbying group added that Congress "must be prepared to intervene" before the Dec. 9 deadline to ensure continued rail service if a voluntary agreement isn't reached, a task that it said Congress has taken on 18 times since 1926.