The House of Representatives votes to pass a bill to force a railroad labor agreement to prevent railroad shutdowns.
Without an agreement, the unions are ready to strike as early as December 9. Four of the 12 unions involved rejected the deal, brokered by the White House, that did not include paid sick days or changes to an attendance policy that railroad workers say is punitive. Shutting down the nation’s rail system could cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day, according to a railroad trade group.
The House voted 290-137, with bipartisan support, for a bill that would force a White House-brokered rail deal. But the chamber also narrowly approved a separate version of the railroad deal, 221-207, to give railroad workers seven paid sick days, a move that liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have opposed. advocated for.
“We are here today to protect the financial security of American families, to protect the American economy as it continues to recover, and to prevent devastating rail shutdowns across the country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the start of the speech. debate.
Both bills go to the Senate, but the timing of a vote there is uncertain.
Shortly after the House action, President Biden called on the Senate to act quickly to prevent a railroad strike.
“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin halting 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 that again: Without action this week, disruption will begin in our auto supply chains, our ability to put food on our tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries.”
The bizarre politics surrounding the rail strike — with the economic threat of infrastructure shutdowns prompting a pro-union Democratic president to push through the deal despite some objections from union workers — makes it difficult to predict the bill’s path in the Senate.
Several liberal senators, including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), pushed for a version of the deal that included paid sick days, while moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) said he had not decided whether he would vote to add sick days. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are expected to discuss the deal with Democrats on Thursday.
On the Republican side, at least one senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, said he would only support a deal that included sick leave. “I absolutely will not support it without taking sick leave,” he said. Others who had previously appeared open to adding the approval, including Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), dropped that support Wednesday, saying they did not want to change the deal that had already been reached.
“I doubt it makes sense for us to try to rewrite the agreement,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Penn.) said of the sick leave addition.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who can often be counted on to take politically tough bipartisan votes, called on Biden to “convene both sides” at the White House and craft a second deal rather than have Congress impose one. “To overturn a worker’s rejection of a proposal, especially when it comes to sick leave, worries me,” she said.
But many Republicans sounded wary of allowing the strike to disrupt the nation’s economy, even if they were undecided on how they would vote on the deal. “I don’t think the country can handle a railroad strike,” said Sen. Mike Brown (Ind.). “The economy has been so screwed up in the last two years because of the supply chain and other issues.”
Even among Democrats, there was disagreement about the way forward. 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 basic deal if he was able to vote separately on paid leave.
In recent weeks, four of the 12 railroad unions have rejected a tentative agreement reached with the help of the White House. That deal offers union members a 24 percent raise through 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on health premiums. The carriers also agreed to give conductors and engineers one extra paid day and new flexibility to take time off work three times a year for routine health checks without fear of discipline.
But many workers argue that these gains do not address chronic understaffing that prevents them from seeing doctors and dealing with emergencies, as well as a lack of paid sick leave.
The rail carriers said they had to maintain their attendance policies to ensure the railways were adequately staffed. They say employees can take time off when they are sick by using paid vacation days.
Ian Jeffries, president of the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group that negotiates on behalf of the carriers, said he does not support adding paid sick days to the deal.
“The House is considering a new equation measure based on the completely false premise that railroad employees do not receive paid sick leave,” Jeffries said. “The consequences of approving such a measure would discourage future voluntary agreements for freight railroads.”
Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, one of four unions whose members voted against the deal, said his union members were disappointed by Biden’s call on Congress to impose the deal. But he is optimistic they can get paid sick days after their contract.
“We are very satisfied with the results of the vote in the House today on the resolution of Fr [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.”
Lawmakers are under pressure to pass the bill and get it to Biden’s desk by Saturday to avoid delays in critical supplies, ahead of the Dec. 9 strike deadline.
“He’s very clear about that, because we have to protect American families from the potentially devastating consequences of a rail shutdown,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday. “Of course [Biden] supports paid sick leave for all Americans, including railroad workers, but does not support any legislation or amendment that will delay this bill from being on his desk until this Saturday.”
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.
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