Freight rail strike averted, after frenzied negotiations

“The Senate voted Thursday to avert a freight rail strike just days before crucial drinking water, food and energy shipments were set to be sidelined, after hurried talks in both chambers of Congress and a visit to the Senate from two of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries — but a bipartisan push to add paid sick leave to the deal fell short.
Ultimately the Senate voted 80-15, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting present, to pass a bill that would impose the terms of a contract negotiated among freight railroads and most of their unions in September. Four out of the 12 unions involved had been holding out for additional paid sick days, making a strike possible as soon as Dec. 9.”

““What’s frustrating is that the railroads know that their backstop is federal government intervening in a strike,” said Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, one of the four unions that rejected the tentative agreement. “The railroads would have come running to the bargaining table if they knew that we would have been able to go on strike. But they were reliant on the Congress stopping our strike, and therefore they bargained in bad faith.””

What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

Israelis press U.S. not to rejoin Iran nuclear deal

“The 2015 nuclear deal, struck during Barack Obama’s presidency, lifted an array of U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for major restraints on its nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it was too weak and too narrow and he reimposed the sanctions while adding new ones. After about a year, Iran began violating the terms of the deal, including by enriching uranium to high levels and shutting out inspectors.

President Joe Biden has sought to rejoin the deal — he and his aides argued that it remains the best vehicle to contain an Iranian nuclear threat. Over nearly a year and a half, a period that included some long pauses, Biden’s emissaries have engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials about reviving the agreement.

The two sides, whose discussions have been mediated primarily by European officials, have tangled on a variety of thorny topics. Those include: whether the U.S. will rescind Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the fate of a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into traces of nuclear materials at various Iranian sites; and Iranian demands for certain guarantees that the lifting of sanctions will lead to economic benefits — and that the U.S. won’t pull out of the deal under a different president.

Biden has said he will not rescind the IRGC’s terrorism designation, and the IAEA has indicated it will not give up on the probe.

Iran recently responded to a European draft proposal on reviving the deal with comments mostly focused on sanctions and economic guarantees. U.S. officials have been looking at the Iranian demands and preparing their own response, which may be sent to European negotiators later this week.

The U.S. has been consulting allies, among them Israel, before sending its response, though it wasn’t immediately clear if it would wait until after Gantz’s meeting with Sullivan.

“At every step of the process, we have been in touch with our Israeli partners to update them on where we are, to compare notes on the state of Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.

The Israeli officials are making their push at a sensitive time: the country, currently being overseen by a caretaker government, will soon hold its fifth election in less than four years.

The main internal debate among U.S. negotiators has been about the economic guarantees sought by Iran, said Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. Those guarantees deal in part with Iran’s concerns that even if the 2015 deal is revived, foreign companies will consider it too risky to invest in the country. Even when the deal was in full force, many foreign firms were hesitant to do business in Iran.

For Israel’s political leaders, an Iran whose economy is stronger is an Iran that is a bigger threat to their country’s existence. Iran’s rulers consider Israel an illegitimate state, and some have predicted its eventual doom.

Israeli political leaders’ argument against the nuclear deal often boils down to concerns that, if the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran, the regime will use the incoming cash to engage even more in an array of unsavory activities, including funding and arming terrorist groups that target Israel.”

“some Israelis in the security establishment — often retired officers with more freedom to speak out — have broken with their political leaders on this issue. They argue that, as imperfect as the nuclear deal may be, it’s better than having no restraints on or surveillance of Iran’s program.”

“At present, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — is believed to be a few weeks. Under a restored deal, it would likely be around six months. Under the original 2015 agreement, it was estimated at around a year.”

Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine the West’s fault? Video Sources

Is the war in Ukraine the fault of the West? John M. Owen IV. 2022 3 21. UVA: Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/war-ukraine-fault-west How Russia’s Attack on Ukraine Threatens Democracy Everywhere McGregor McCance and John M. Owen. UVAToday. 2022 3 2. https://news.virginia.edu/content/how-russias-attack-ukraine-threatens-democracy-everywhere [New School]

Progressive groups are “fed up” with Biden’s infrastructure playbook

“The White House has already cut its initial $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal by more than $1 trillion, and proposed significant changes to the taxation plan to pay for the infrastructure plan.
The GOP group, meanwhile, has added less than $100 billion in new spending to its initial proposal. The latest Republican plan totals $928 billion but is proposing just $257 billion in new spending, and repurposing the rest of the infrastructure money from unused American Rescue Plan funds.”

“Still, progressive groups are telegraphing their disappointment, especially after the Senate GOP filibustered a bill for a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill — a violent event led by supporters of President Donald Trump targeting lawmakers of both parties.

“It’s hard to argue Republicans are good faith negotiations when they couldn’t pass that.” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, told Vox of the commission bill. “Democrats are attempting to govern, and Republicans have their eyes on 2022 and 2024 and are seeking to get back into power.””

Biden is talking to Republicans, but for only so long

“As vice president, Joe Biden was among those repeatedly pushing President Barack Obama to negotiate with Republicans on everything from health care to fiscal crises — even if it led to delays, watered-down policies or nothing at all.

But these days, Biden and his team, many of whom worked in the Obama administration, are taking a different approach: Talking to Republicans, yes, but doing so with more skepticism and firmer deadlines”

““The lesson that this team learned, beginning with President Biden, from that experience is that there is a cost to waiting too long,” said Jay Carney, who worked for Biden before becoming Obama White House press secretary, and is now an executive at Amazon. “I think everyone is much more realistic about whether bipartisan cooperation is possible.”

Biden, the aides and lawmakers say, believes action is more important than bipartisanship, and is convinced Americans will support him in his efforts. He recognizes that his window for this approach may close by the midterm elections. That’s why, the aides and lawmakers say, he may be willing to give up the reputation, cultivated over decades, as a dealmaking lawmaker if he can be a transformative president who pushes through a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and social programs.

The president will talk with Republicans about his new pair of proposed spending plans — a combined $4 trillion in spending designed to ignite economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic — but he is prepared to back a congressional maneuver that would allow Senate Democrats to pass legislation without GOP support, perhaps within weeks, aides and lawmakers familiar with his thinking say.”