The White House is scrambling to avert a looming rail strike

White House officials are holding emergency meetings in a desperate battle to avert a national rail strike that is days away from shutting down much of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Biden administration officials have begun preparing for a potential shutdown and have warned that a strike could severely damage the U.S. economy, while also warning that it could hurt Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, two of the people said. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was part of meetings led by the White House National Economic Council last week, and President Biden is also following the issue personally, the two people said. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also involved in trying to mediate the impasse.

The deadlock pits two of Biden̵[ads1]7;s top priorities against each other. The president has been a staunch defender of union workers, but does not want a breakdown in the nation’s transportation infrastructure that would disrupt commuter and passenger services.

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The administration has little time to act: The nationwide rail strike is due to take effect on Friday, and labor and management have been at an impasse over difficult issues such as sick time and penalties for missing work.

The freight industry has warned that the first national rail strike in decades will shut down 30 per cent of the country’s freight and “stop most passenger and commuter rail services”. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, a branch of the Teamsters, announced Sunday a tentative agreement with national railroad companies, leaving just two of the 12 unions without a deal in place. But they are the two largest railway unions in the country, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors.

Concerns about the political consequences of a work stoppage also extend to parts of the administration. Farm groups have called for an agreement to be reached quickly, as their operations could be severely affected. The administration has already faced criticism over its handling of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which was devastated last year by supply chain snarls and this year by a surge in cancellations and delays at the nation’s airports. Some administration officials fear squandering the economic victories in Biden in August that have helped boost Democrats’ poll numbers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, has estimated that failure to reach an agreement could cost the U.S. economy as much as $2 billion per day in lost economic output. The president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Suzanne P. Clark, said Monday that a strike would be an “economic disaster” with “catastrophic economic consequences” and called for urgent action to resolve the standoff.

“The last thing they want right now is a major strike in a key sector like this,” said Dean Baker, a White House ally and economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “I think Biden is going to push very hard to get a deal. He’ll probably push the employer side, but I’m sure he’ll push the union as well … although it’s a question of how hard he’ll be willing to pressure the workers.”

Yet the president has made support for unions one of the top priorities throughout his administration. Many Biden aides are sympathetic to workers’ complaints about poor working conditions and unfair treatment by management, and are reluctant to lean too aggressively on labor leaders to end the strike.

It concerns the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Board, which is run by three Biden appointees. The board outlined wage increases and annual bonuses in a 124-page report that was between the demands of the union and management, and was generous enough to shell out 10 of the unions representing a subset of railroad workers who do not drive trains.

But the remaining two unions scheduled to strike are furious at the board’s lack of strong proposals related to certain working conditions they say are “ruining the lives” of their members, such as penalties for taking time off. Labor groups say engineers and conductors have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family members’ funerals, and can be on duty for 14 days straight without a break, for up to 12 hours. They also get no sick days.

“We are facing the potential of a strike because the railroad refuses to give a single day of sick time,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that has not reached an agreement. β€œIt’s about the phone ringing at 2am to be at work at 4am after only 10 hours of rest before. It is about not knowing when you will come home and be punished with discipline up to firing if you need to go to the doctor.”

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