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Congress poised to pass resolution to avoid rail strike

Agreement was rejected by four of the 12 rail-worker unions

The White House’s rail union agreement would avert a Dec. 9 work stoppage.
The White House’s rail union agreement would avert a Dec. 9 work stoppage. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Aiming to avert a Dec. 9 railroad work stoppage estimated to cost the economy $2 billion a day, House and Senate leaders of both parties promised to pass legislation soon that would enact the White House’s rail union agreement that is opposed by most rail union workers.

According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, the chamber will take up the legislation as soon as 9 a.m. Wednesday. The measure would put in place the most recent tentative agreement by the Presidential Emergency Board in September.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said they intend to pass the legislation “as quickly as possible.”

“You need to act a few days before that, because a lot of the suppliers stopped sending their stuff on the trains if they think there’s a possible shutdown,” Schumer said. “For instance, chlorine, to preserve water supplies in many towns and cities, would not go on those trains.” 

The legislation comes after President Joe Biden called on Capitol Hill to ratify the agreement — a move that’s caused workers to question his self-proclaimed pro-union presidency. The rail unions’ bargaining process and contract has remained in status quo since four unions voted down the agreement over what they called “insufficient” paid sick leave. The other eight unions have ratified the agreement.

Lawmakers were poised to pass a joint resolution in September that would similarly require the unions and railroads to accept the recommendations of the presidential board. However, the Biden administration issued a tentative agreement that includes one of the largest wage packages in nearly five decades, according to advocates of the agreement, as well as health benefits and an additional day of paid time off for most union workers.  

According to the Association of American Railroads, the agreement offers one of the highest wage increases in over five decades, with extra wage and compensation of up to $16,000 for the average rail employee.

But four rail unions — the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and SMART Transportation Division — said the agreement’s four days of sick leave doesn’t provide protections against illnesses like COVID-19. 

“Despite making record profits year after year, pumping up their stock prices to unheard-of levels, downsizing the workforce by furloughing 30 percent of the employees and becoming some of the most profitable corporations on Wall Street, the Class One carriers somehow cannot afford to provide sick time for their hard-working and dedicated employees,” Jason Doering, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a group representing workers from a variety of rail unions and carriers, said in a statement.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents the freight rail carriers in national collective bargaining, maintains that the agreement allows union employees to call in sick “at any time, as long as they maintain a reasonable level of overall availability under carrier attendance policies,” as well as other long-term sickness benefits.

Union support

Biden and some Democrats have been reluctant to urge congressional action to enact the agreement, especially as many in the party have focused on pro-union policies over the past session. But the fallout from a rail strike, which would cause major disruptions to many industries that rely on freight rail shipping before the holidays, has outweighed Democrats’ pro-union platforms.

Railroads haul about 40 percent of the nation’s freight each year, and a rail strike would cost the economy $2 billion a day, according to a railroad industry report published in September. Although some businesses could shift to trucks, the Association of American Railroads, an industry group, estimates that the nation would need 467,000 additional trucks a day to handle all railroad deliveries.

A chemical industry trade group also projected that a monthlong rail strike could cause 700,000 jobs to be lost as manufacturers that rely on railroads shut down and prices continue to increase.

“We fully understand the significance a national railroad strike would entail, and naturally it was never our desire to cripple the American economy,” said Clark Ballew, spokesperson for the maintenance-of-way union. “In fact, nearly three years ago, when the COVID pandemic arose, recognizing the importance of maintaining the supply chain and keeping grocery shelves stocked, we proudly went to work when 99 percent of the country rightfully and safely stayed home. … But scores of our members did get sick. Dozens died.” 

Some progressives, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have come out against the tentative agreement. Sanders said in a tweet Tuesday evening that he would try to prevent a vote on the resolution.

“At a time of record profits in the rail industry, it’s unacceptable that rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s my intention to block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., also voiced opposition to the bill in a tweet. 

“Listen, I can’t in good conscience vote for a bill that doesn’t give rail workers the paid leave they deserve,” Bowman wrote. “We fumbled this in Build Back Better, we can’t do that again.”

Sanders was able to block a unanimous consent agreement on the joint resolution in September, which would have sped up its passage.

Congress has stepped in during similar labor disputes 16 times. If lawmakers pass a joint resolution to enact the agreement, the agreement would apply to all 12 unions for the next two years, until the next bargaining round begins.

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