Congress votes to avert rail strike amid dire warnings
WASHINGTON — Legislation to avert what could have been an economically ruinous freight rail strike won final approval in Congress on Thursday as lawmakers responded quickly to President Joe Biden’s call for federal intervention in a long-running labor dispute.
The Senate passed a bill to bind workers and rail companies to a settlement that was reached in September between union leaders and rail companies. That settlement had been rejected by four of the 12 unions involved, creating the possibility of a strike beginning Dec. 9.
The Senate vote was 80-15. It was one day after the House had voted to impose this agreement. Biden will now sign the measure.
“Communities will maintain access to clean drinking water. Farmers and ranchers will be able to continue to bring food to the market and feed their animals. After the vote, Biden stated that hundreds of thousands of Americans will continue to work in a variety of industries. “I will sign this bill into law as soon Congress sends it to me. “
The Senate voted shortly after Marty Walsh, Transportation Secretary, and Pete Buttigieg, Democratic senators, stressed to them at a Capitol meeting how rail companies would shut down operations long before a strike could begin. The administration wanted the bill to be on Biden’s desk by Saturday.
Shortly before Thursday’s vote, Biden defended a contract that four unions had rejected and noted the wage increases it contained.
“I negotiated a deal that no one else could negotiate,” Biden stated at a briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron. “What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had.”
Critics say the contract that did not receive backing from enough union members lacked sufficient levels of paid sick leave for rail workers. Biden stated that he wants paid sick leave for everyone so it doesn’t have to be negotiated into employment contracts. However, Republican lawmakers have blocked measures that would require time off work for family and medical reasons. The president said Congress should impose the contract now to avoid a strike that he said could cause 750,000 job losses and a recession.
Railways claim that a stoppage in rail service would result in a $2 billion-per day economic loss. A freight rail strike could also have a significant impact on passenger rail. Amtrak and many commuter rails depend on freight railroad tracks.
Unions and rail companies have been involved in high-stakes negotiation. In September, the Biden administration helped broker agreements between railroad leaders and union leaders. However, four unions rejected the deals. Eight others approved five-year deals and are getting back pay for their workers for the 24% raises that are retroactive to 2020. Biden called for Congress to enforce the tentative agreement reached in September, as a strike was imminent. Congress has the power to act and has passed legislation in the past to prevent or delay strikes on railways and airlines. However, most lawmakers prefer that the parties resolve their differences on their terms.
The Senate voted on three measures. The first vote was on a measure passed by Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), which would have sent both sides back to the negotiating table. The extension was opposed by union groups and the Biden administration. The proposal was rejected by both 25 senators and 70 opponents.
” “An extension would simply permit the railroads to continue their status quo operations while prolonging workers’ suffering,” said leaders of the Transportation Trades Department (AFL-CIO).
The Senate’s second vote would have followed the House’s narrowly-adopted path, which was to add seven paid sick days to the tentative agreement. But that measure fell eight votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed for passage.
The final vote was the one that bound the parties to the September agreement. It passed with broad bipartisan support in the House. Although lawmakers expressed concern about the necessity of participating, the economic stakes outweighed their concerns.
“A strike of that magnitude would have a painful impact on our economy and that is an unacceptable scenario as inflation continues to squeeze West Virginians and Americans heading into the holiday season,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Democrats have traditionally aligned themselves with the politically powerful labor unions that criticized Biden’s move to intervene and block a strike. Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, stated to her Democratic colleagues that Congress had to bypass the standard ratification process of union contracts.
She did hold an additional vote, which would have granted the seven days of paid sick time that union workers requested. This allowed Democratic lawmakers in both chambers to show support for rail workers’ sick leave while also avoiding a crippling walkout.
The call for paid sick time was a major sticking issue in the negotiations, along with other quality of life concerns. Railroads claim that the unions have reached an agreement over the years to forgo paid sick leave in favor of higher wages, strong short-term disability benefits, and higher wages.
Unions claim that railroads can afford to add paid sick leave when they are making record profits. Many of the major railroads involved in these contract negotiations reported more than $1 million profit in the third quarter.
The Association of American Railroads trade association praised the Senate vote to impose a compromise deal that included the largest raises in over 40 years. Despite this, CEO Ian Jefferies acknowledged the dissatisfaction of many workers with their working conditions. Jefferies stated that while there is still much to be done to address the concerns of employees regarding work-life balance, it is clear that this agreement will continue to maintain rail’s position among the top jobs in our country. The final result was not approved by
” The Senate failed to pass seven days’ worth of sick leave for rail workers. We are grateful for the 52 senators who voted YES, and stood with rail workers,” tweeted a labor coalition from the Transportation Trades Department. “Shame on the 43 elected officials who have abandoned the working class. It will not be forgotten. “
Associated Press staff writer Josh Boak contributed to this report. Funk reported from Omaha in Nebraska.
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