Skip to content

Senate clears rail labor agreement, rejects sick leave

Measure aimed at averting the economic disruption of a rail strike

President Joe Biden welcomed passage of the resolution putting in place a labor agreement reached by White House, railroads and unions in September.
President Joe Biden welcomed passage of the resolution putting in place a labor agreement reached by White House, railroads and unions in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate passed a resolution Thursday that would put in place the rail labor agreement reached by the White House, railroads and labor unions in September, but rejected a separate measure to provide an additional seven days of sick leave to workers.

The rejection of the sick leave resolution serves a blow to rail union workers who held up the bargaining process and have threatened to strike Dec. 9 unless they get the additional sick leave. The passed resolution would prevent unions from striking by imposing a contract agreement.

The Senate voted 80-15 to pass the labor resolution , which would enact contract agreement provisions including one of the largest wage packages in nearly five decades, according to its advocates, as well as increased health benefits.

The resolution now heads to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it. 

“I want to thank Congressional leadership who supported the bill and the overwhelming majority of Senators and Representatives in both parties who voted to avert a rail shutdown,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House after the vote. “Congress’ decisive action ensures that we will avoid the impending, devastating economic consequences for workers, families, and communities across the country.”

Since the chamber fell short of the 60 votes needed to approve the sick-leave measure — the vote was 52-43 — the rail workers will get one “paid personal day” and three periods off for medical care visits annually. They will also be required to schedule the visits only on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and at least 30 days in advance.  

Congress has been racing against the looming threat of a rail strike next week after four out of 12 unions declined to ratify a labor agreement crafted by a Presidential Emergency Board. In response to progressive Democrats, who threatened to block the agreement if Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., didn’t hold a vote on extra sick leave, House Democrats introduced the sick time resolution, technically an “enrollment correction,” Tuesday night. The House approved both resolutions Wednesday.

Schumer granted the vote on extra sick-leave provisions Thursday afternoon to build support for passing the labor agreement legislation by the end of the day. If the Senate hadn’t approved the labor agreement by Friday, the rail industry expected to lose business as soon as the weekend, since industries that rely on rail shipping would likely pull out their shipments in expectation of a strike.

Economic impact

The now reigning agreement is a win for railroads, the industries that rely on them and the American public, industry representatives say. The Association of American Railroads estimated that a rail stoppage could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, as well as back up key supply chains.

“The impacts on the rail industry would start Saturday,” said Chris Jahn, CEO of the industry group American Chemistry Council, speaking about what would happen if lawmakers didn’t approve the resolution by Friday. “[Shipments] of things like chlorine for disinfecting drinking water and a variety of other industries where these different technologies go into healthcare, energy production and food production would all be at risk.”

But unions advocating for additional sick leave call the agreement’s passage a bigger problem for the railroad industry’s morale problem.

“It precludes us from going on strike … but it doesn’t build camaraderie and trust with their workers,” said Clark Ballew, spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Railroaders are tired. They get jerked around by terrible attendance policies, awful scheduling, demands to come in at a moment’s notice because there’s no one else to respond.”

“You can damn well believe our members will remember which politicians supported a basic, common courtesy of a sick day when they go to the ballot box,” he added.

The unions received unexpected support from a handful of Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Marco Rubio of Florida, who criticized congressional action on the agreement for the “precedent” it would set.

“By now everyone should realize nothing good happens when Congress gets involved in issues best left to the private sector,” Rubio said. “Congress should have sent everyone back to the negotiating table, but instead it told rail workers to suck it up and be grateful.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, added that congressional action means lawmakers can get involved in “every collective bargaining agreement,” stressing that it needs to be a “last resort.”

The Republican senators joined progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has been vocal about his opposition to imposing an agreement without additional sick leave. Sanders even teased Cruz for his yes vote on the paid sick leave resolution, saying, “I always knew you were a socialist.”

After passage, Sanders promised to take up additional paid sick days in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, adding that the “struggle is not over.”

Democrats in the Senate widely supported both the paid sick leave and underlying agreement resolutions, with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., the only member of the party to vote against the paid sick leave measure.

Prior to passage, the Senate voted 26-69 against an amendment offered by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that would increase the cooling-off period for freight railroads and unions that expires Dec. 4.

The unions would remain under the agreement passed by Congress for the next two years until the collective bargaining process begins again.

Recent Stories

At the Races: Run the World (Older Women)

As younger members of Congress leave, veteran members are trying to get back in

Technology Can Be the Real Game Changer in Corrections

Democrats ask insurers to meet contraceptive coverage mandate

Greatest Generation Coin will help preserve World War II Memorial for future generations

Lawmakers press to avoid funding pitfall for public defenders