Congress votes to avert rail strike amid dire warnings

WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation to avert what could have been an economically devastating freight rail strike won final approval in Congress on Thursday as lawmakers responded swiftly to President Joe Biden’s call for federal intervention in a long-running labor dispute.

The Senate passed a bill to bind railroad companies and workers to a proposed agreement reached between railroad companies and union leaders in September. That agreement was rejected by four of the 12 participating unions, opening the possibility of a strike starting on December 9.

The Senate vote was 80-15. It came one day after the House they voted to enforce the agreement. The measure now goes to Biden’s desk for his signature.

“Communities will maintain access to clean drinking water. Farmers and ranchers will continue to be able to bring food to market and feed their livestock. And hundreds of thousands of Americans across a range of industries will keep their jobs,” Biden said after the vote. “I will sign the bill as soon as Congress sends it to my desk.”

The Senate voted shortly after Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed to Democratic senators at a Capitol meeting that railroad companies would begin shutting down operations well before a potential strike begins. The administration wanted the bill on Biden’s desk by the weekend.

Shortly before Thursday’s vote, Biden defended the contract, which four of the unions had rejected, noting the wage increases it contained.

“I negotiated a deal that no one else could negotiate,” Biden said at a briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron. “What was agreed upon was far better than anything they had ever had.”

Critics say the contract, which has not received support from enough union members, lacks sufficient levels of paid sick leave for rail workers. Biden has said he wants paid leave for “everyone” so it doesn’t have to be negotiated in labor contracts, but Republican lawmakers have blocked measures to require medical and family time off work. The president said Congress must enforce the contract now to avoid a strike that he said could cause 750,000 job losses and a recession.

The railroads say that stopping rail services would cause a devastating $2 billion-a-day hit to the economy. A freight rail strike would also have a large potential impact on passenger rail, with Amtrak and many commuter rail lines relying on freight railroad-owned tracks.

Railroad companies and unions are in high-stakes negotiations. The Biden administration helped broker deals between the railroads and union leaders in September, but four of the unions rejected the deals. Eight others approved five-year deals and are getting their workers back wages for the 24 percent raises that are backdated to 2020.

With the strike looming, Biden urged Congress to enforce the tentative agreement reached in September. Congress has the power to do so and has passed legislation in the past to delay or ban railroad and airline strikes. But most lawmakers would prefer that the parties resolve their differences on their own.

The Senate took a series of three votes. The first was a measure by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that would have brought the two sides back to the negotiating table. But union groups opposed the extension, as did the Biden administration. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated with 25 senators in favor and 70 against.

“An extension will simply allow the railroads to maintain the status quo while prolonging the suffering of the workforce,” said leaders of the AFL-CIO Transportation Bargaining Division.

The second vote the Senate took would have followed the path the House narrowly adopted the day before, which was to add seven days of paid sick leave to the tentative agreement. But that measure fell eight votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed for passage.

The final vote was the measure binding the two sides to the September agreement. It passed with broad bipartisan support, as it did in the House. Although lawmakers expressed concern that they should weigh in, the economic stakes outweighed those concerns.

“A strike of this magnitude would have a painful impact on our economy, and this is an unacceptable scenario as inflation continues to weigh on West Virginians and Americans heading into the holiday season,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va.

Democrats have traditionally sided with politically powerful unions in criticizing Biden’s move to step in and block a strike. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her Democratic colleagues that “with great reluctance” Congress should bypass the standard process of ratifying union contracts.

She did, however, hold an additional vote that would have added the seven days of paid sick leave that the union workers wanted. That gave Democratic lawmakers in both houses a chance to show their support for paid sick leave for railroad workers while avoiding a crippling strike.

The call for paid sick leave was a major sticking point in the talks, along with other quality-of-life issues. The railroads say unions have agreed in decades of negotiations to ditch paid sick time in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.

Unions say railroads can easily afford to add paid sick leave when they post record profits. Several of the major railroads involved in these contract negotiations reported profits of more than $1 billion in the third quarter.

The trade group Association of American Railroads praised the Senate’s vote to force a compromise deal that includes the biggest raises in more than four decades. Still, chief executive Ian Jeffries admitted many workers remained unhappy with working conditions. “There is no doubt more to be done to address our employees’ work-life balance concerns, but it is clear that this agreement maintains rail’s place among our nation’s best workplaces.” Jeffries said.

Union groups were unhappy with the end result.

“The Senate just failed to pass seven days of paid sick leave for railroad workers. We are grateful to the 52 senators who voted YES and stood with rail workers,” the Department of Transportation labor coalition tweeted. “Shame on the 43 elected leaders who have abandoned the working class. We will not forget it.”


Associated Press staff writer Josh Boak contributed to this report. Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.

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