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U.S. House votes to avert calamitous rail strike, but Senate prospects murky


U.S. House votes to avert calamitous rail strike, but Senate prospects murky

Nov 30, 2022 | 2:54 pm ET
By Jacob Fischler
U.S. House votes to avert calamitous rail strike, but Senate prospects murky
Railroad crossing sign. (Photo by Kateywhat/iStock/Getty Images)

By Jacob Fischler

The U.S. House moved Wednesday to avoid an economically disastrous nationwide rail strike, voting to codify an agreement that members of some unions had already rejected and separately add paid sick leave that workers had demanded.

The two-track approach allows Democrats to avert a strike that could cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day, while also acknowledging they sympathized with union members’ request for more sick leave.

Prospects in the Senate, where progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and other members of the Democratic caucus have asked that sick leave be added to any deal imposed by Congress, remained murky Wednesday. 

As the House votes closed Wednesday, Sanders was on the Senate floor urging support for the sick leave proposal.

“I hope very much that in a bipartisan way we can do the right thing and tell the rail workers and tell every worker in America that the United States Congress is prepared to stand with them and not just the people on top who are doing extraordinarily well,” he said.

Several Republicans have also signaled their support for adding sick leave, but it’s unclear if there are 10 Republicans needed to approve that measure.

The congressional action comes after President Joe Biden convened a panel of arbitrators to secure a deal between railroads and union leaders in September. That deal provided a 24% increase in total compensation to rail workers, but did not affect sick leave policies that unions said were unworkable. 

Four of the 12 rail unions declined to endorse the deal. They are legally able to strike on Dec. 9, though rail service is likely to be affected if a work stoppage is not avoided by week’s end. Thousands of businesses would feel the impact in the weeks before the holidays.

Democrats say they must act

Biden, who fashioned himself “a proud pro-labor president,” said this week he would have preferred not to wade into the dispute, but that the economic consequences necessitated federal action.

“I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

House Democrats took similar positions this week, appearing reluctant to approve a deal that unions had rejected, but doing so anyway to avoid economic catastrophe.

“Congress has the authority to act,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat who is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday. “Not because we want to, but we have to avoid a work stoppage. And we have to recognize that the tentative agreement falls well short of what is necessary for paid leave for rail workers.”

Republicans took the opportunity to blast Biden for failing to avert the rail shutdown with the September negotiation. Congress shouldn’t have to be involved, they said.

“Congress should be a last resort,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, said. “Biden and this administration, they need to be more engaged in this. This is not our business. We shouldn’t be negotiating union contracts.”

Bipartisan vote

Wednesday’s 290-137 House vote to approve the tentative agreement — without added sick time — was bipartisan, with only eight Democrats voting against and more than one-third of Republicans voting to approve it. 

The vote to add the sick leave provision passed, 221-207, mostly along party lines, with three Republicans — Don Bacon of Nebraska, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and John Katko of New York — joining all House Democrats in voting to approve.

Avoiding a rail shutdown should be the priority, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri said, not mollifying union members.

Congress stepping in to override private negotiations and the recommendation of a neutral mediation board undermined future collective bargaining, he said.

“It’s nothing more than a political stunt,” Graves said. “It’s pandering … Today my colleagues are acting very recklessly and are setting a terrible precedent.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the panel’s rail subcommittee, responded that the proposal would only right the wrong of rail workers’  insufficient paid sick leave.

“This is not pandering,” Payne responded. “This is seeing a situation and addressing it.”

Uncertainty in Senate

After House passage, the measure will move to the Senate, where it’s unclear if the tentative agreement, the resolution with added sick time or neither would pass.

The chamber will likely vote either Thursday or Friday.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper was among the Senate Democrats joining Sanders in calling for seven days of added sick leave — the same amount required of federal contractors —to be included in a congressional resolution.

“Railroad companies are holding the American economy hostage over 56 annual hours of sick leave,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Just seven days. We can keep our economy humming, our supply chains open, AND treat workers with dignity.

“Any bill should include the SEVEN days of sick leave rail workers have asked for.”

Several Republicans gave varying levels of support to the prospect of adding sick leave to a bill. Ten would be needed to pass such a bill if every Democrat voted in favor. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, considered the caucus’ most conservative member, has not said how he would vote on the sick leave proposal.

Ernst said her party was “debating this heavily.” 

But since Congress is involved, she said she would base her vote on the views of union members — not necessarily their leaders. Union leaders negotiated the September agreement that lacked all the sick time members sought.

Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott said they wouldn’t vote for the tentative agreement that was opposed by workers.

Leaders of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a major transportation union, on Wednesday morning prior to the vote endorsed the bill to add seven days of sick leave.

“Right now, every Member of Congress has an opportunity to be a champion of the working class,” TTD President Greg Regan and Secretary-Treasurer Shari Semelsberger said in a statement. 

“We implore these elected leaders to stand with essential workers who are the backbone of our nation’s supply chain. We urge the House and the Senate to vote in favor of guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave to rail workers.”

In a statement, Biden thanked the House for passing its bill and called on the Senate to follow suit “immediately.”

“Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin,” he said. “The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately.”

$2 billion per day

The Association of American Railroads, the trade group for the leading rail service providers, estimated that a nationwide shutdown would mean daily losses of $2 billion for the U.S. economy.

Tens of thousands of businesses depend on rail to deliver goods, with 75,000 carloads beginning shipping every day, according to a September AAR report.

Other industries would not be in a position to replace rail transport, the report said. It would take 467,000 additional long-haul trucks to replace rail carriers.

There was unanimity among elected officials in Washington that a shutdown would be calamitous. 

In a statement Monday, Biden called on Congress to approve the tentative agreement “to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”

“A shutdown is unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday’s press briefing. “It will hurt families, communities across the country. It will hurt jobs. It will hurt farms. It will hurt businesses.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also called Monday evening for Congress to adopt the agreement to prevent “a rail shutdown that would have devastating impacts on our economy.”

Democrats and Republicans in the House noted that a shutdown would worsen inflation, driving up energy and other costs.

And because of the complexity of the supply chain, any stoppage in service could take much longer to unfurl, Ed Mortimer a former vice president for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.

“Any type of disruption — it could only last a week, but it could take a month or two to get back to whatever normal was,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.