If rail workers strike, Congress can and should force them back on the job

021018 chaitin railroads pic
The move further casts leadership of the top federal railroad safety regulator in doubt as Democrats have placed a hold on President Trump’s nominee to fill the role. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) Michael Dwyer

If rail workers strike, Congress can and should force them back on the job

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After all the supply chain problems the United States has suffered in the last two years, the very last thing the nation needs is a railroad strike. Unfortunately, it could happen any day now, as soon as Dec. 5.

Of the two biggest unions representing rail workers, one voted narrowly last week to accept a new contract with a 24% pay increase and a $1,000 annual bonus for its workers. But one division of the other union, known by its acronym SMART-TD, voted narrowly to reject the contract. This means that a significant share of the railroads’ train and engine service workers could walk out next week, and if they go on strike, all the other unions will join them.

RAIL STRIKE THREAT RENEWED AS LARGEST RAIL UNION REJECTS LABOR CONTRACT

Needless to say, a strike by 15,000 rail workers would create a disaster for shipping ahead of the holiday season.

Inflation is bad enough already, but if shipping problems worsen the scarcity of goods at the time of peak demand, the price of groceries, gas, and Christmas presents could go much higher than they already have.

It is pretty hard to sympathize with a single division of a single union that is holding out for more than a bonus and a 24% pay increase at a time when most workers aren’t getting any pay increases at all.

It is even harder to sympathize, given the unions’ not-at-all-coincidental decision to hold off until after the election, thus sparing one of the worst and most unpopular presidential administrations in history from the political consequences of its failure to lean on the unions to stop.

The good news is that the law governing labor relations on railroads is different from the law that governs them in most other industries.

Congress, when it passed the Railway Labor Act in the 1920s, decided that railroads are just too important to be subjected to the whims of Big Labor the way other businesses are. Congress can force the striking workers back on the job by simply passing a resolution, which President Joe Biden would then have to sign.

And of course, this is exactly what Congress should do — in fact, there is some hope that even Democrats will be on board. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told Bloomberg in a recorded September interview that Congress would not sit idly by.

“There is a role for Congress if in fact they fail to reach an agreement,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, a railroad strike at this point in time would be extraordinarily detrimental to our economy and to the American people, and we want to avoid that. … We are very focused on this, and we want to avoid a crippling railroad strike.”

Hoyer is right. And congressional action has still one more benefit for everyone.

Given this month’s election results, Democrats are facing the unenviable fate of being stuck with Biden as their nominee in 2024. But a congressional resolution preventing a strike would force Biden, who has already decided that he is doing everything right as president, to show who he really works for. Does he work for you and your family? Or does he work for a pampered modern labor movement that has no qualms about holding the country hostage for extra leverage in its contract negotiations?

We have the lowest of low expectations for how Biden would handle such a situation.

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