Without an agreement, the unions are about to strike on December 9. Four of the 12 unions involved had rejected a White House-brokered contract that lacked paid sick leave or changes to an attendance policy that railroad workers say is punitive. A shutdown of the nation’s rail systems could cost the economy up to $2 billion a day, according to the Rail Carriers Trade Group.
The House voted 290 to 137, with bipartisan support, on the bill that would force through the White House-brokered rail deal. But the chamber also narrowly approved a separate version of the rail deal, 221-207, to give railroad workers seven paid sick days, a move Liberal Democrats in the House, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I- Vt.), pushed for.
“Today, we are here to protect the financial security of American families, to protect the American economy as it continues to recover, and to avoid a devastating nationwide rail shutdown,” said the President of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) debate.
Both bills are heading to the Senate, but the timing of votes there is uncertain.
Shortly after the House action, President Biden urged the Senate to act quickly to avert a railroad strike.
“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 in a statement. . “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.”
The bizarre politics around the railroad strike – with the economic threat of an infrastructure shutdown prompting a pro-union Democratic president to push a deal over objections from some union workers – makes it harder to predict the project’s path bill in the Senate.
Several liberal senators, including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Mass), were pushing to pass the version of the deal that included paid sick leave, while moderate senator Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) said he was undecided whether he would vote to add sick days. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are expected to speak with Democrats about the deal on Thursday.
On the Republican side, at least one senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, has said he would only favor a deal that includes sick leave. “I absolutely will not support him without sick leave,” he said. Others who previously seemed open to adding the leave, including Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), walked back that support on Wednesday, saying they did not want to alter a deal that had already been reached.
“I highly doubt it makes sense for us to try to rewrite the agreement,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Penn.) said of the sick days addition.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who can often be counted on to take politically difficult bipartisan votes, urged Biden to “convene both parties” to the White House and hammer out another deal instead of the Congress imposes one. “Overturning the workers’ rejection of the proposal, especially when it centers on sick leave, worries me,” she said.
But many Republicans appeared wary of allowing a strike to disrupt the national economy, even though they were undecided about how they would vote on the deal. “I don’t think the country can stand a railroad strike,” Sen. Mike Braun (Ind.) said. “The economy has been so screwed up over the last two years with supply chain and other issues.”
Even among Democrats, there was disagreement on which way to go. A group of 12 Liberal senators released a statement saying the Senate must make the deal “better”.
Sanders declined to say Wednesday whether he would vote for the underlying deal if he was able to vote separately on paid leave.
In recent weeks, four out of 12 rail unions have rejected the tentative deal brokered with help from the White House. The deal offers union members a 24% raise by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on health care premiums. Carriers also agreed to give conductors and engineers just one extra paid day off and new flexibility to take time off work three times a year for routine health appointments without fear of discipline.
But many workers argue that these gains do not solve problems with a chronic understaffing that prevents them from going to doctors and dealing with emergencies, as well as a lack of paid sick leave.
Rail carriers said they must maintain attendance policies to ensure the railways have sufficient staff. They say employees can take time off when they are sick using paid vacation days.
Ian Jeffries, president of the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group negotiating on behalf of carriers, said he was not in favor of adding paid sick leave to the agreement.
“The Chamber is considering a new measure of the equation based on the totally false premise that railroad employees do not get paid sick leave,” Jeffries said. “The ramifications of approving such a measure would discourage future voluntary agreements for freight railways.”
Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, one of four unions whose members rejected the deal, said his members were disappointed with Biden’s call for Congress to impose the deal. But he is optimistic that they can get paid sick leave in their contract.
“We are very pleased with the results of the House vote today on the resolution of [get sick days]”, Baldwin said. “We’re trying to work within the Senate to see if we can get support, and we’re actually starting to get people’s support.”
Pressure is on lawmakers to pass a bill and get it to Biden’s office by Saturday, to avoid delays in essential supplies, ahead of a Dec. 9 strike deadline.
“He’s very clear on this, because we need to protect American families from the potential devastating effects of a rail shutdown,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday. “Sure, [Biden] supports paid sick leave for all Americans, including railroad workers, but he does not support any bills or amendments that would delay bringing that bill to his office by this Saturday.
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.