WASHINGTON - Lawmakers in the US House of Representatives voted Thursday to prevent a potentially catastrophic freight rail strike, stepping in to break an impasse between workers and executives during a critical pre-holiday period. The bill, passed with a solid bipartisan majority, effectively forces hold-out unions to accept a September deal on increased wages, which a majority of unions had already agreed to. The bill must now go to the Senate, where leaders of both parties have suggested they will move quickly to head off a disruption of the US rail system right before Christmas. Congress is empowered under a 1926 law to resolve disputes between railroads and labor unions, as part of its power to regulate commerce. President Joe Biden praised the bipartisan vote to avert a shutdown that “would devastate our economy and families everywhere,” but said the measure must pass swiftly. “Without more action, supply chain disruptions will begin,” Biden said on Twitter. “The Senate must urgently send a bill to my desk.” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told a press briefing that Biden expects the bill to reach him by next weekend. The Biden administration had taken a hands-on approach to the long-running deadlock over a contract between organized labor and railroads, with cabinet secretaries in September participating in all-night negotiations alongside union leaders and rail executives. After that marathon session, leaders from the two sides announced a tentative agreement. Since that time, members of eight of the 12 rail unions approved the deal, while four voted it down.
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The agreement includes a 24 percent pay increase for workers. But critics in organized labor have slammed a lack of guaranteed paid sick leave, an omission that has been seen as evidence of “unchecked corporate greed,” as one leading union put it.