US President Joe Biden signed into law Friday a rare intervention by Congress forcing freight rail unions to accept a salary deal, avoiding a possibly devastating strike — but putting the pro-union Democrat in an awkward political position.
Biden signed the law in a brief White House ceremony only a week before unions who had rejected the deal were expected to have gone on strike, threatening crucial supply chains across the world’s biggest economy.
The deal delivers a hefty wage increase but four of the 12 unions involved refused to accept it because there was no agreement on giving workers paid sick leave. Congress acted under a little used power to resolve disputes involving railroads.
As he signed the bill, Biden said Congresss had “avoided what, without a doubt, would have been an economic catastrophe.”
“Without freight rail, many of the US industries would literally have shut down,” Biden said, adding that his advisors feared the loss of three-quarters of a million jobs within two weeks if the strike had gone ahead.
The episode was awkward politically for Biden.
Trade unions constitute a major element in his electoral coalition and he frequently describes himself as a lifelong union supporter and the “most pro-union president” in history.