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Congress is trying to prevent a rail strike. Here is how and why.

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives took the first step Wednesday to prevent a nationwide rail strike by passing legislation that would impose a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers, a day after congressional leaders met with President Biden. about the topic.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it faces a difficult road. Mr Biden has urged congressional leaders to act fast as rail workers have threatened to stop working if they fail to reach an agreement before a December 9 deadline, an interruption that could cost the economy roughly $2 billion a day and hurting consumers.

The Biden administration weighed in on the dispute earlier this year and negotiated a tentative deal to raise worker pay and establish more flexible hours, but four of 12 unions voted against it, leaving freight railroads and unions In a dead end.

Here’s how and why Congress is getting involved.

Congress has the power under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, and the Supreme Court has ruled that this includes the authority to intervene in railroad labor disputes that threaten commerce across state lines.

the Railway Labor Law, enacted in 1926, allows the president to engage in disputes that “substantially threaten to disrupt interstate commerce to the point of depriving any part of the country of essential transportation service,” as Biden did in September. But ever since that statute was enacted, Congress has had to step in. 18 times when the process did not produce an agreement.

That’s what lawmakers are trying to do this week.

The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, said in september that the new contracts would include a 24 percent increase in wages over the five years from 2020 to 2024. There would also be an $11,000 payout, on average, when the agreement is ratified, the association said.

In addition, the agreement gave workers an additional paid day off and the ability to attend medical appointments without penalty, the unions said, moves that were intended to ease what workers said was a rigid scheduling system that did not allow them to take care of their health or take the personal time they needed.

Rail freight carriers are the second largest mode of freight transportation in the United States. More than a quarter of US cargo before the pandemic was transported by rail, according to federal data. This includes important raw materials such as coal, timber, minerals, and chemicals.

If no deal is reached, a strike could paralyze domestic transportation of these staples during one of the busiest times of the year for carriers, making it nearly impossible to transport goods like oil and grain. It would also have a devastating effect on the nation’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

It would also leave rail workers, who have been working without a new contract since 2020, without the improved wages and benefits they have negotiated.

Biden and the Democrats who control Congress have said they don’t like to force a deal, but doing so is necessary to avoid the serious economic damage a rail strike could cause.

But many progressives refused to vote to force workers into a deal that many of their unions had rejected because they believed it lacked enough paid vacation. Bowing to pressure from those Democrats, some of whom had threatened to withhold their votes and block consideration of the deal, House leaders also introduced a bill to add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract.

It passed the House mostly along party lines, but its 50-50 fate in the Senate was uncertain.

Like many industries reeling from the adverse impact of the pandemic, employee shortages left rail carriers with few options for maintaining business levels. Unions complained that as a result of labor shortages, carriers ordered their employees to work for long periods, sometimes for weeks, through strict attendance policies.

Industry analysts also say the conflict stems from the focus on cutting expenses like labor costs in the industry’s business model, which has left rail networks with a limited number of ways to fix disruptions like pandemics and natural disasters.

Workers say they were pushed to the limits of their mental and physical health by grueling and unpredictable schedules, and have demanded more flexible paid leave policies.

Rail carriers have resisted the lawsuits, saying employees should use paid vacation time to attend to their personal lives and seek medical help. But employees have said the windows in which they can request paid leave have been narrowed and their requests for time off have been denied.