Some labour leaders have criticised the US President for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.

A rail strike could have frozen almost 30 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoked already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion a day, and stranded millions of rail passengers.
A rail strike could have frozen almost 30 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoked already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion a day, and stranded millions of rail passengers. (Reuters)

President Joe Biden has signed legislation to block a national US railroad strike that could have potentially devastated the American economy.

The US Senate voted 80 to 15 on Friday to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers, who could have gone on strike on December 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”.

Eight of 12 unions had ratified the deal. But some labour leaders have criticised Biden, a self-described friend of labour, for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.

READ MORE: Biden asks Congress to step in to prevent US rail strike

“That fight isn’t over,” Biden said of the push for sick leave.

Railroads have slashed labour 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.

A rail strike could have frozen almost 30 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, stoked already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion a day, and stranded millions of rail passengers.

As the strike threat loomed, the US Congress had to invoke its sweeping powers to block strikes involving transportation - authority it does not have in other labour disputes.

There are no paid short-term sick days under the tentative deal after unions asked for 15 and railroads settled on one personal day.

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien harshly criticised the Senate vote on sick leave. “Rail carriers make record profits. Rail workers get zero paid sick days. Is this OK? Paid sick leave is a basic human right. This system is failing,” O’Brien wrote on Twitter.

READ MORE: Biden secures tentative deal to avert nationwide railway strike

The contract that will take effect with Biden’s signature includes a 24 percent compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.

American Association of Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said, “None of the parties achieved everything they advocated for” but added, “without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns.”

Without the legislation, rail workers could have gone out next week, but the impacts would be felt as soon as this weekend as railroads stopped accepting hazardous materials shipments and commuter railroads began cancelling passenger service.

Source: Reuters