President Joe Biden called on Congress to intervene and impose contract terms on unions and railroads to avoid a strike that could begin as early as Dec. 9.
“Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. “Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote on a bill Wednesday in an effort to prevent a strike.
Typically, Congress can’t interfere with disputes between unions, but the Railway Labor Act of 1926 allows lawmakers to act to keep trains running.
The last time there was a railroad strike in the U.S. was in 1992, and it only lasted four days before Congress put an end to it.
The steps toward a strike began after four unions rejected a contract deal over concerns about demanding hours and a lack of paid sick leave. Eight other railroad unions accepted the deal in September.
However, those unions are prepared to join the strike in solidarity if it happens.
The September agreement added three unpaid days off a year for engineers and conductors to tend to medical appointments as long as they scheduled them at least 30 days in advance. The railroads also promised in September not to penalize workers who are hospitalized and to negotiate further with the unions after the contract is approved about improving the regular scheduling of days off.
A major sticking point in the deal is a lack of paid sick time for railroad employees.
Railroads haul about 40% of the nation’s freight each year. The railroads estimated that a rail strike would cost the economy $2 billion a day in a report issued earlier this fall.
A strike would impact everything from chemicals needed to purify water, livestock feed and groceries. Retail stores could have trouble stocking shelves in the midst of holiday shopping season.
Passengers who commute on rail would also be impacted by the strike, since many commuter trains operate on tracks partially or fully owned by freight railroads.
Some of these disruptions could begin even before the potential strike date of Dec. 9. In anticipation of a strike, railroads would stop hauling hazardous chemicals early to ensure no dangerous materials wind up stranded on tracks.
During the previous strike threat in September, Amtrak also canceled trains ahead of the anticipated action so that no passengers would be stranded en route to their destination.
Biden said that as a “a proud pro-labor president” he was reluctant to override the views of people who voted against the agreement. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.