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Looming freight train strike could derail Biden political momentum

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US President Joe Biden appears at the White House on November 18, 2022./AFP
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Nov 23, 2022 - 09:48 AM

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden faces the prospect of a crippling strike by railroad unions that could stall transport of fuel, corn and drinking water, dramatically complicate holiday season train travel, and dent the US president’s political standing.

If an agreement is not reached by December 9 at the latest, the world’s largest economy could see nearly 7,000 freight trains grind to a halt, at a cost of more than $2 billion a day, according to the American Association of Railroads.

Biden himself has got “involved directly” in the negotiations aimed at averting a work stoppage, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

“I don’t want to get into details at this time, but he has been involved,” she said.

In a country where some 28 percent of all goods are transported by rail, according to 2019 statistics, “a shutdown is unacceptable because of the harm… imposed on jobs, families, farms, businesses, and communities” nationwide, Jean-Pierre added.

A large-scale strike would affect multiple sectors, even the supply of drinking water, given than many of the chemicals used in treatment plants are transported by train.

A freight freeze would also impact passenger service, because some passenger trains run on tracks owned by freight companies.

The stoppage threat is the result of a complex negotiation involving members of 12 unions and their employers, with Biden weighing in to flex his political muscle.

Too soon? 

The risk of a major labor dispute actually has existed for months, with the White House narrowly averting a strike in September.

In a self-congratulatory move, the president welcomed labor leaders to the Oval Office on September 15 to celebrate an agreement in principle, after hours of intense negotiations that had stalled in particular on the issue of sick leave.

Biden at the time went as far as to hail “a big win for America” during a speech in the Rose Garden.

The presidential celebration now appears premature. That agreement still required the ratification from members of the 12 unions in question, but four of the labor groups do not support it.

There are still two weeks to reach a deal. In the end, if only one of the unions goes on strike, the others will follow suit.

The impasse is a difficult one for Biden. He is a huge supporter of rail transportation who as a US senator traveled by train daily between Washington and his family living in the state of Delaware, and throughout his career has rarely missed an opportunity to express support for labor unions.

But with US inflation sky high, and holidays fast approaching, he can hardly afford such transport woes.

As the 79-year-old Democrat mulls a re-election bid in 2024, a rail strike could jeopardize the political momentum he has earned since the November 8 midterm elections, when his party averted major losses to Republicans.

One possibility is the intervention of Congress, which has the power under the 1926 Railway Labor Act to keep the railroads operating.

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