Senate Averts Freight Rail Strike, But Bid To Include Worker Sick Leave Fails

Ariana Figueroa, Nebraska Examiner

The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted to codify an agreement the White House brokered between rail unions and freight companies in order to avoid a catastrophic rail strike, but fell short of enough votes to include paid sick leave for workers.

The Senate backed the rail deal on an 80-15 vote and rejected the House-passed sick leave proposal 52-43, despite pleas from independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sixty votes were required for passage.

The bill imposing the agreement now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk. Senators also rejected 25-70 a proposal by Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan and Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton to extend the cooling-off period for talks to continue.

Sanders called out railroad companies for refusing to give their workers paid sick leave and penalizing those who do take time off, calling the practices “barbaric.” He voted against codifying the September agreement.

“I gotta say that they are maybe the worst case of corporate greed that I have seen,” Sanders said of the freight rail carriers. “These guys are making record-breaking profits, giving their CEOs huge compensation packages.”

But Democrats said the looming rail strike had the potential to upend U.S. shipping and commerce just before the holidays, and Biden on Monday called for Congress to impose the agreement.

“The Senate cannot leave until we get the job done,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said ahead of the votes Thursday.

“Working together, we have spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities,” Biden said after the Senate vote.

“I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures. But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country. And, the agreement will raise workers’ wages by 24%, increase health care benefits, and preserve two person crews.

“I have long been a supporter of paid sick leave for workers in all industries — not just the rail industry — and my fight for that critical benefit continues.”

Buttigieg and Walsh to the Hill

With the cooling-off period ending soon, giving the unions the authority to strike starting Dec. 9, Biden sent U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Democrats on the railroad labor deal ahead of the vote.

Congress has the authority to intervene under the Railway Labor Act, which governs disputes between railway carriers and labor unions.

The Senate Republicans who joined a majority of Democrats in backing paid sick leave included Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Braun of Indiana, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is currently on the campaign trail in advance of the Georgia runoff election, did not vote. Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, did not vote because he tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday morning and is currently isolating.

Senators said they had to act. “We need to figure out a way to get this working,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said, adding that it would be devastating to workers and the economy if the strike were to occur.

Sen. Joe Manchin III expressed concern about Congress setting a precedent by intervening in a rail strike, but ultimately said he would vote for the agreement. Following the briefing he attended with Walsh and Buttigieg, he said he felt the deal was fair.

“It’s still the best proposal out there, and it’s what we should be voting for,” Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said.

Manchin voted against giving workers seven days of paid sick leave.

The scramble for Congress to pass a rail deal came after the president directed Congress to adopt the agreement between rail workers and operators that the White House helped facilitate in September, which was based on recommendations from an emergency board that Biden established in July.

Biden, calling himself “a proud pro-labor president,” said while that he was supportive of the unions, he could not let the dispute create an economic disaster.

September deal

In September, four of the 12 rail unions voted against endorsing the deal, voicing their opposition to a lack of paid sick leave. All 12 unions — representing 115,000 freight rail workers — need to agree on a contract, and if one doesn’t agree, workers represented by the others don’t cross the picket line.

The House on Wednesday voted to pass the agreement, and separately added seven days of paid sick leave though workers wanted more. Railroad workers are not currently guaranteed a single paid sick day. Rail companies refused to agree to paid sick leave.

The House strategy could have averted a possible rail strike that would potentially cost the U.S. economy more than $2 billion per day, while also sympathizing with union members’ request for sick leave.

The agreement the White House helped facilitate would give workers a 24% raise over five years, from 2020 to 2024; one additional personal day; and some protection from the rail carriers’ punitive attendance policies so that workers can take time off for medical needs without fear of discipline. The White House suggested to the unions that they withdrawal their request for paid sick leave.

The Association of American Railroads, which is the trade group that represents the railroad companies, urged the Senate to pass the September agreement, and reject Sanders’ push to include paid sick leave.

“The Senate must now act quickly to implement the historic deals reached at the bargaining table and already ratified by eight of twelve unions,” AAR CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.

“Unless Congress wants to become the de facto endgame for future negotiations, any effort to put its thumb on the bargaining scale to artificially advantage either party or otherwise obstruct a swift resolution would be wholly irresponsible and risk a timely outcome to avoid significant economic harm.”

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, criticized freight owners and called out the use of Precision Scheduled Railroading. PSR is a method of running a railroad to streamline rail operations.

“This is an industry that has been wildly profitable,” Warren said. “They’ve doubled their profits during the pandemic, they’ve done $125 billion in stock buybacks, and they’ve cut the workforce by 30%, and the way they have been so profitable is by doing something they call precision scheduling, which means in fact, every single worker has to be available roughly 365 days. That leaves no room for people to get sick, for people to get injured.”

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement that the agreement from the White House fell short, and urged Congress to “do the right thing by passing paid sick days for rail workers.”

“To be clear, rail companies could do the right thing today and grant workers paid sick leave,” she said. “But they’ve refused, putting profits over people. That’s how we got here.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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