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Sanders blocks Senate measure to avert rail stoppage

Burr says Schumer could schedule floor vote for his joint resolution

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., urged Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to bring his resolution to the floor for a vote, pledging to deliver 48 Republican votes.
Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., urged Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to bring his resolution to the floor for a vote, pledging to deliver 48 Republican votes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Bernie Sanders objected Wednesday to an effort to get unanimous Senate consent to a measure that would seek to avert a work stoppage in the freight rail industry that could begin as early as Friday.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., came to the Senate floor to seek unanimous consent to a joint resolution that would require the unions and railroads to accept the recommendations of a presidential emergency board to avoid a strike or lockout. The effort came as the Friday expiration approaches of a 30-day cooling off period that began when the board made the recommendations on Aug. 16. 

“If we do not force this issue, at 12:01 tomorrow night, railroads will shut down and the economic impact on the American people is $2 billion a day,” Burr said. “This is the president’s bipartisan emergency board that came back with its recommendation to the Biden administration.”

Sanders, I-Vt., said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is meeting with unions and management in search of agreement.  “I hope those meetings lead to an agreement that is fair and is just,” Sanders said. 

But he said the rail industry reported $20 billion in profit last year and spent $18 billion on stock buybacks and dividends.

“What’s going on for the workers?” he said. “The key issue is about the working conditions in the industry, which are absolutely unacceptable and almost beyond belief.”

A freight rail worker is entitled to “a grand total of zero sick days,” he said.  The workers are asking for 15 paid sick days, he said. “This is not a radical idea.”

A White House spokeswoman said Tuesday that President Joe Biden spoke to both the carriers and the unions in an effort to avert a strike. 

The threat of a shutdown in the freight rail business comes as the economy is facing inflation that’s running close to a 40-year high, at least in part because of supply disruptions that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and were worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Any further disruption would also come as lawmakers approach November elections that are unusually close for midterms.

Wicker, who also urged unanimous consent, said eight of the unions involved have agreed to the recommendations, but he acknowledged that workers in six of those unions have not yet voted on it. Sanders said none have.

“Inflation is at 8.3 percent or higher,” Wicker said. “Our GDP is shrinking and supply chains have not recovered from the pandemic. The last thing we need is a shutdown of this nation’s rail service, both passenger and freight.” 

“Congress can pass the recommendation of the PEB in full,” he said. “We can avoid this strike, and that’s what we ought to do. … If the trains stop running, our economy grinds to a halt.”

Burr said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., could also bring the resolution to a floor vote. “I can deliver 48 Republican votes,” he said. “He only needs to get 12 on his side to get this passed.” 

A floor vote would likely take more time than senators have to avoid a Friday strike given cumbersome Senate procedure. Wicker said Tuesday he wasn’t sure if Democratic leaders would have the appetite to move the resolution separately if one of their members objected to the unanimous consent request.

Businesses have warned about how far-reaching a freight rail stoppage could be, and the administration was said to be working on alternatives to rail to move freight. Amtrak, the passenger rail company, said Monday that it would cancel some Tuesday departures because many of its trains run on track owned by freight rail companies. 

Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten called a strike “potentially disastrous” for members. Speaking at a media roundtable, he said a strike that shuts down railways would have cascading impacts and a lot of headwinds from supply chain problems would be magnified. These are critical materials, and manufacturing plants would have to shut down, he said.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she has been “engaged in conversation with the White House and the unions.”

“We’re all hoping that negotiations will continue so there is no rail strike,” she said. “I’d rather see the negotiations prevail so there is no need for actions from Congress.”

Two House subcommittees postponed a Thursday hearing to take stock of the freight rail system but didn’t give a reason. Witnesses were expected to discuss the potential freight rail strike, among other issues.

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