WASHINGTON (NewsNation) — President Joe Biden signed legislation Friday to avert a freight rail strike that he said could have plunged the U.S. into recession.
The U.S. Senate voted 80 to 15 on Thursday to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers, who could have gone on strike on Dec. 9. But the Senate failed to approve a measure that would have provided paid sick days to railroad workers.
“It was tough for me but it was the right thing to do at the moment — save jobs, to protect millions of working families from harm and disruption and to keep supply chains stable around the holidays,” Biden said, adding the deal avoided “an economic catastrophe.”
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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%.
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% raises that are retroactive to 2020.
“That fight isn’t over,” Biden said of the push for sick leave.
Railroads have slashed labor and other costs to bolster profits in recent years, and have been fiercely opposed to adding paid sick time that would require them to hire more staff.
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 favor 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.