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Congress votes in favor of a measure that forces rail unions to accept a contract

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With a railway worker strike threatening, the House made an unusual move today. Lawmakers voted in favor of a measure that forces railroad union workers to accept a contract negotiated back in September. They also passed a separate measure to provide seven days paid sick leave. Both measures now go to the Senate. And all this comes after President Biden called on Congress to intervene to prevent a strike in December.

NPR's Ximena Bustillo is here with the latest. Hey there.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: Hey. So this has been very controversial - President Biden wading into the fray, urging Congress to intervene. What happened?

BUSTILLO: Well, for weeks, the Biden administration was really urging workers and management to keep Congress out of it. And in order to do that, they would need to come to a resolution over one of the key sticking points - sick leave. But earlier this week, Biden said he and other members of his Cabinet believed that there was no chance of a resolution at the bargaining table. And he wants a bill by Saturday.

KELLY: Right. And he thought there was no chance because not all the unions were in favor of the agreement, right?

BUSTILLO: That's right. You see, 12 unions have to vote to approve, and four of them rejected it. So even if most accept it, if just one strikes, they all do. And the earliest that they could strike is December 9.

KELLY: Lay out the stakes. What does it risk if we do see a strike?

BUSTILLO: Well, railroad carriers, retailers and other stakeholders are raising the alarm that the economy and supply chains could be severely upended. Even if a strike is still nine days out, carriers are warning that transportation of some products could slow down as soon as this weekend. Here's Corey Rosenbusch, president of The Fertilizer Institute, discussing their contingency plan.

COREY ROSENBUSCH: For us, a strike effectively starts this weekend. Rail carriers, you know, have already notified that ammonia shipments will need to be pulled off of the network starting about five days before, which would be December 4. So many of the fertilizer companies are already preparing for that reality starting about five days before any official strike begins.

BUSTILLO: Railroads handle the transportation of up to 40% of all goods, but they take on the lion's share of products like ethanol, fertilizer and grains. And this means that any strike could create massive ripple effects on supply chains. And the result of this is shortages and higher prices for consumers on everyday items like gasoline and food.

KELLY: All eyes turn to the Senate now. How quickly might they act?

BUSTILLO: Well, there are interesting dynamics at play in the Senate. Some Republicans and even progressives are not willing to support just one bill that forces the contract agreement, but they're inclined to support it if it comes with a bill to provide seven days of sick leave. Here's Missouri GOP Senator Josh Hawley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: Well, the sick leave is a different question. I think that's what the workers say is very important to them, and I would support that. Now, if that gets attached and the workers are OK with that, I think that's a different question. But I do not support the underlying agreement that the administration wants to force on the workers, and I frankly think it's pretty extraordinary that they're trying to - they, the administration, is trying to use Congress to force on these workers something they've said no to.

BUSTILLO: Hawley is not alone. Senator Marco Rubio said that he will not support a contract that's not backed by workers, and progressives are in line with this thinking. Senator Bernie Sanders said that he is cautiously optimistic that the two groups can put together a bipartisan coalition to support both bills. But Hawley is more skeptical. When speaking to me, he said that he believes he's likely in the minority of his party.

KELLY: And just in a quick sentence or two, where does all this leave the president?

BUSTILLO: Well, it's a tough pill for the president to swallow, including other members of his Cabinet that are really strong union leaders and union supporters. But the administration today said that they want a bill passed by Saturday, and therefore, they don't support amendments that could delay that. And they don't believe the Senate has 60 votes to pass the sick leave.

KELLY: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thank you.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.