Can Congress make railroad workers go back to work? Yes it can

President Joe Biden called on Congress Monday to pass legislation forcing a deal to dodge a shutdown of the nation’s freight railroads.

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“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators — without any modifications or delay — to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown,” Biden said in his statement.

The tentative agreement reached in September included, among other issues, a 24% increase in wages in the five years from 2020 through 2024, a $1,000 bonus when the agreement is ratified, payout of backpay, one additional paid day off and an ability to attend medical appointments without penalty.

Eight of the 12 unions involved in strike negotiations have accepted the tentative agreement. Four have not. The railroad strike deadline is Dec. 9.

Biden warned that any shutdown of freight-moving railroads would “devastate our economy.”

“Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down,” Biden warned.

A railroad union leader said a strike is the last thing members want.

“We don’t want to strike. We want what’s just,” said Matt Weaver, the legislative director for Ohio for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one of the labor unions representing rail workers.

What would Congress have to do to keep the industry from striking and how would that work?

Here’s what we know now.

Can Congress force railroad unions to agree to the deal?

Yes. Congress passed the Railway Labor Act in the 1920s because it decided railroads were too important to the country’s well-being.

To force railroad workers to accept a negotiated agreement and return to work, Congress has to pass a resolution. That resolution would then have to be signed by Biden.

Can Congress do that for other industries?

Generally, no, it cannot. The Railroad Labor Act is a targeted piece of legislation aimed at keeping freight rail moving goods throughout the country.

What do the railroad employees want?

The railroad unions are asking for better working conditions, a 24% pay increase retroactive to 2020, paid time off, the ability to take off for medical appointments, among other demands.

What union is the government dealing with?

There are 12 unions involved in the negotiations. They form the coalition for National Freight Rail Bargaining.

The unions are:

1.       International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Div. including Yardmasters (SMART-TD & SMART-TD-YDM)

2.       Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET)

3.       Brotherhood Railway Carmen (BRC)

4.       Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS)

5.       International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)

6.       International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

7.       Transportation Communications International Union (TCU)

8.       National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO)

9.       American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA)

10.   International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Blacksmiths, Iron Ship Builders, Forgers and Helpers (IBB)

11.   Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED)

12.   International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-MECHANICAL DIV.)

Is Congress going to pass a resolution?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said lawmakers would take up legislation this week.

“We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement — but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt,” Pelosi said in the statement

Pelosi said the House would not change the terms of the September agreement. If the resolution passes the House, it would go to the Senate, which could change the legislation.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, on Sunday told Fox News that Congress will not let a national railroad workers’ strike hurt the U.S. economy.

“That’s for sure. It would be devastating to our economy. So, we’ll get to a resolution one way or another,” Fitzpatrick, co-chief of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said.

The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group of 58 lawmakers.

What happens if Congress acts and the president signs the resolution?

If a resolution is passed, talks would end between the railroads and the four rail unions that rejected the deal the president helped negotiate in September.

The eight other unions that approved the five-year deals with the railroads in the September negotiations are now getting backpay for their workers for the 24% raises that are retroactive to 2020, and will be getting the other negotiated benefits.

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