WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. House of Representatives moved urgently to end the looming nationwide railroad strike on Wednesday, passing a bill that would bind businesses and workers to a proposed settlement concluded in September but rejected by some of the 12 unions concerned.
The measure passed by a vote of 290 to 137 and is now heading to the Senate. If approved there, it will be signed by President Joe Biden, who urged the Senate to act quickly.
“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin stopping the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as early as this weekend,” Biden said. “Let me say it again: Without action this week, the disruptions to our automotive supply chains, our ability to get food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin.”
Business groups including the United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation have warned that halting rail service will spell devastating disaster. $2 billion a day hit the economy.
The bill would impose a negotiated compromise collective agreement by the Biden administration that was ultimately voted down by four of 12 unions representing about 115,000 major freight railroad employees. Unions have threatened to strike if an agreement cannot be reached by the December 9 deadline.
Lawmakers on both sides have expressed reservations about calling off the talks. The intervention was particularly difficult for Democratic lawmakers who have traditionally sought to align themselves with politically powerful unions that criticized Biden’s decision. to intervene in the contractual dispute and to block a strike.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to that concern by adding a second vote on Wednesday that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for railroad workers covered by the deal. However, this will only go into effect if the Senate accepts and passes both measures. The House also passed the sick leave measure, but by a much narrower margin, 221-207, as Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, indicating the prospects of the addition passing are slim in a Senate equally divided.
Business groups and the Association of American Railroads trade association welcomed the House vote to block the strike, but urged senators to resist adding sick leave to the deal.
“Unless Congress wishes to become the de facto end of future negotiations, any effort to put a thumb on the negotiating ladder to artificially advantage either party, or otherwise impede a speedy resolution, would be totally irresponsible,” said Ian Jefferies, head of the RAA.
On the other hand, the Department of Transportation Trades Union Coalition, which includes all railroad unions, welcomed the vote to add sick leave and told lawmakers who voted against that they had ” abandoned your working-class voters”.
Attention now turns to the Senate where the timing of the vote is unclear. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will meet with Democratic senators on Thursday to discuss rail negotiations. Some Democrats are pushing for the Senate to vote on granting seven days of paid sick leave.
“A multi-billion dollar industry that is engaged in buyouts, that has doubled its profit margins during the pandemic should not be able to force its workers to come in when they are sick and injured,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
But most Republicans are reluctant to change the tentative settlement reached in September.
“I think it’s a bad precedent for us to get into the nuances and the details of things like this that have been negotiated for three years,” said Sen. John Thune, RS.D.
The call for paid sick leave has been a major sticking point in the talks, along with other quality of life concerns. The railways say unions have agreed in negotiations over decades to forego paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and robust short-term disability benefits.
Jefferies said Tuesday the railroads would consider adding paid sick leave in the future, but said the change would have to wait for a new round of negotiations.
Unions argue the railroads can easily afford to add paid sick leave at a time when they are posting record profits. Several of the major railroads involved in these talks have reported more than $1 billion in profits in the third trimester.
“Quite frankly, the fact that paid time off was not part of the final agreement between the railroads and the workers is, in my opinion, obscene,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Most railroad workers do not receive paid sick leave, but they do have short-term disability benefits that kick in after as little as four days and can replace part of their income for a year or more. Railway workers also receive vacation and personal days off, but workers say it’s difficult to use these for illness because they usually have to be approved well in advance.
In the House, Republicans voiced support for the move to block the strike, but criticized the Biden administration for looking to Congress to “step in to fix the mess.” Some 79 Republicans voted with the overwhelming majority of Democrats for the bill binding the parties to the tentative settlement.
But Republicans criticized Pelosi’s decision to add the sick leave bill to the mix, and only three of them voted for the resolution. They said the Biden administration’s own special arbitration board had recommended higher wages to compensate unions for not including sick leave in its recommendations.
“Why do we even have the system set up the way it is if Congress is going to step in and make changes to all the recommendations?” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.
Pelosi has sought to position Democrats and the Biden administration as defenders of unions, but she said Congress must step in to avert a strike.
“Families wouldn’t be able to buy groceries or life-saving medicines because it would be even more expensive and perishables would spoil before they hit the shelves,” Pelosi said.
The compromise deal that has been backed by the railroads and the majority of unions provides for 24% and $5,000 bonus increases retroactive to 2020 as well as an additional paid day off. The increases would be the largest railway workers have received in more than four decades. Workers would have to pay a higher share of their health insurance costs, but their premiums would be capped at 15% of the total cost of the insurance plan. The agreement did not resolve workers’ concerns about schedules that make it difficult to take a day off and the lack of more paid sick leave.
On several occasions in the past, Congress has intervened in labor disputes by enacting laws to delay or prohibit railroad and airline strikes.
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.
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