House of Representatives Votes to Avert a Rail Strike, Impose a Deal on Unions

The U.S. House of Representatives moved urgently to head off the impending nationwide rail strike, passing a bill to bind workers and companies to a proposed settlement reached in September but was rejected by some of the 12 unions involved. 

The measure passed the House by a vote of 290-137 and is now headed to the Senate. If approved, President Biden will sign the measure. 

“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend,” said Biden. “Let me say that again: without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin.”

The bill’s passage would force a compromise labor agreement brokered by President Biden and his administration that was voted down by four of the 12 unions representing around 115,000 employees at large freight railroads. Unions have threatened to strike if no agreement is reached before the December 9 deadline.

Both parties’ lawmakers have expressed reservations about overriding the negotiations. Intervention in the talks was complex for many Democrat lawmakers who have traditionally aligned themselves with the powerful labor unions.

The focus is on something other than the Senate, where the voting timing is still being determined. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will meet with Democrat senators to discuss the negotiations. 

The most significant sticking point remains paid sick leave

Unions maintain that railroads can easily afford to add paid sick leave for their employees while recording record profits. Several big railroads involved in the contract talks reported more than $1 billion in profit during the third quarter. 

“Quite frankly, the fact that paid leave is not part of the final agreement between railroads and labor is, in my opinion, obscene,” said Democrat Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

Most rail workers do not receive any paid sick time. However, they do have short-term disability benefits that kick in after as short a period as four days and can replace a portion of their income for a year or more. Rail workers also receive personal leave and vacation days, but workers say it’s challenging to use those days for illnesses because they must be approved far ahead of time. 

In the House of Representatives, GOP members voiced support for the measure to prevent the strike but were critical of the Biden administration for turning to Congress to “step in to fix the mess.” Seventy-nine Republicans voted along with the majority of Democrats for the bill that binds the parties to the tentative settlement. 

Most unions supported the compromise agreement, and the railroads provided $5,000 in bonuses and 24% raises retroactive to 2020 in addition to one more paid leave day. The raises amount to the most extensive rail workers have received in over four decades. 

Workers would also have to pay a more significant share of their health insurance costs. However, premiums would be capped at 15% of the total cost of the insurance plan. The compromise agreement didn’t resolve rail workers’ concerns about schedules that make it challenging to take a day off and the lack of additional paid sick time.