(Bloomberg) — Senate Republicans failed in a bid to force labor unions and railroads to resolve a fight over contract negotiations, ahead of a strike that threatens to paralyze much of the US rail system.
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Republican Richard Burr sought unanimous consent for a resolution that would force the two sides to accept the recommendations of a presidential emergency board established by President Joe Biden. That would require agreement from all senators, and Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, objected, arguing freight rail workers need better sick leave.
“In less than 48 hours, at 12:01 Friday morning, the likelihood is without action by Congress, there will be a strike and rail traffic will stop,” Burr said.
The legislative attempt underscores the rising urgency among policy makers to prevent as many as 125,000 workers walking off the job if an agreement isn’t reached by the Friday deadline. The Biden administration has been working to avoid a strike that threatens supply chains and is estimated to cost more than $2 billion a day.
The so-called Presidential Emergency Board issued recommendations last month to resolve the dispute, including wage increases and improved health coverage, but the proposal left out terms wanted by the unions.
A growing number of industry groups are calling on Congress to act to avoid a strike. The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which represents the $7.4 trillion wholesale-distribution industry, said Wednesday that it signed onto a letter urging Congress to take action to prevent a rail strike from “further disrupting the supply chain.”
Lawmakers are running out of time to act. Many Democrats have hoped for negotiations to come to a close on their own to avoid walkouts, while unions have urged lawmakers not to intervene.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would “rather see negotiations prevail so there’s no need for any actions from Congress.” The California Democrat said she has been engaged in conversations around the issue with the administration and unions, and the main disagreement is over not having sick leave for workers.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio said he’s been in “pretty consistent contact with the White House” but hasn’t had any conversations about how Congress might need to act if time runs out.
“All the shippers are upset,” DeFazio said. “Right now, everybody hates the freight railroads.”
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh continued talks between freight-rail companies and unions on Wednesday in hopes of coming to a deal. The White House is also considering an emergency decree.
The potential for a strike has already caused service and travel disruptions. Amtrak said Wednesday that it would cancel all long-distance trains starting Thursday, while Acela and most Northeastern line trains would be unaffected.
(Updates throughout to reflect vote outcome.)
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