The White House is quick to avert the looming rail strike

White House officials are holding emergency meetings in a desperate race to avoid a national rail strike within days of the closure of much of the country’s transportation infrastructure, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Biden administration officials have begun preparing for a potential closure and warned that a strike could severely damage the US economy, also warning that it could harm Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections, two of the people said. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh attended meetings led by the White House National Economic Council last week and President Biden is also personally following the matter, the two people said. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also involved in trying to mediate the impasse.

The stalemate pits two of Biden’s top priorities against each other. The president has been a staunch advocate for union workers, but he doesn’t 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 railway closure will go into effect on Friday, and work and management have been stalled on difficult issues such as sick hours and penalties for lack of work.

The freight industry warned that the first national rail strike in decades would shut down 30 percent of the country’s freight transport and “stop most passenger and commuter rail services.” The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters, announced a tentative deal with domestic rail carriers on Sunday, leaving only two of the 12 unions without a deal in place. But those are the two largest railway unions in the country, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors.

Concerns about the political impact of a job closure also extend to parts of the administration. Farm groups have been clamoring for an agreement to be reached quickly, as their operations could be severely impacted. The administration has already faced criticism of the nation’s transportation infrastructure management, which was damaged last year by supply chain hitches and this year by a spike in cancellations and delays at the nation’s airports. Some administration officials fear squandering Biden’s August economic victories that helped increase the number of Democratic polls.

The Federal Railroad Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, has estimated that failing to reach a deal could cost the US economy up to $ 2 billion a day in lost economic output. US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark on Monday said a strike would be an “economic disaster” with “catastrophic economic repercussions”, calling for urgent action to resolve the stalemate.

“The last thing they want right now is a big strike in a key industry 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 will push hard to get a deal. He presumably will push on the employer’s side, but I’m sure he will push on the union side as well … although there is a question of how much he will be willing to push the workers. “

However, the president has made support for trade unions a top priority throughout his administration. Many Biden associates sympathize with workers’ complaints about poor working conditions and unfair treatment from management, and are reluctant to lean too aggressively on union leaders to end the strike.

At issue is 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 among the demands of the union and management, and was generous enough to eliminate 10 unions representing a subset of rail workers who don’t run trains.

But the remaining two unions that are expected to strike are infuriated by the board’s lack of strong proposals relating to certain working conditions that they say are “destroying the lives” of their members, such as being sanctioned for having I took a break. Union groups say engineers and conductors have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family funerals and can be on call for 14 consecutive days without interruption, up to 12 hours. Sick days are also granted.

“We are facing the potential of a strike because the railroad refuses to allow a single sick day,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that did not reach an agreement. “This is the phone that rings at 2 am to be at work at 4 am after just 10 hours of rest earlier. It is a question of not knowing when to come home and being punished with discipline up to dismissal if you have to go to the doctor ”.

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