House Passes Legislation to Avert Nationwide Rail Strike

November 30, 2022 by Dan McCue
House Passes Legislation to Avert Nationwide Rail Strike
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., right, listens as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, speaks to reporters at the White House in Washington, Nov. 29, 2022, about their meeting with President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — The House passed legislation Wednesday to avert a nationwide rail strike, the first step in avoiding an economic calamity at the height of the holiday shopping season.

The chamber passed the main resolution in a 290-137 vote, sending it to the Senate for consideration just over one week out from the Dec. 9 strike deadline. 

Seventy-nine Republicans supported the measure, and eight Democrats voted “no.”

The House then moved on to a separate vote on a measure that would give rail workers seven days of paid sick leave per year, addressing a chief concern unions and progressives had with the agreement. 

That vote was 221-207, with three Republicans joining all Democrats present in supporting the measure.

It was President Biden who set events in motion that led to Wednesday’s vote when he called on Monday night for Congress to intervene in the impasse between union leaders and the nation’s railroads. 

In a written statement released by the White House Monday, the president admitted he was reluctant to push a deal that had been rejected by union members, but felt the alternative was to allow “a potentially crippling national rail shutdown” that would “devastate our economy.”

“As a proud pro-labor president, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

Biden then invited the top four congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday in part to discuss how Congress could help avert the strike.

After bringing the legislation to the floor Wednesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he too “strongly believes that every worker has the right to organize.”

“At the same time, Congress has a responsibility to safeguard the nation’s economy and the well-being of the hundreds of millions of Americans who depend upon it,” he continued. “The legislation the House passed today tries to resolve outstanding issues that required congressional action and, if passed by the Senate, will ensure no disruption in freight or passenger service occurs during the holidays.”

Hoyer said he was pleased that the House could come together in a bipartisan fashion to affirm its support for expanded sick leave for railway workers, and commended Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the union and freight rail companies “for their good-faith efforts to reach an agreement over the past several months.”

“It is my hope that congressional action will not be required in future contract negotiations and that the parties will be able to come to terms on their own,” he added.

The resolution passed on Wednesday was a tentative agreement negotiated by the two largest rail unions in September with help from the Biden administration. 

It provides workers with 24% raises over five years and allows them to take time off for medical appointments without being penalized.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that both he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had agreed to try and get the measure through their chamber as quickly as possible.

However, a number of senators, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said they believe Congress “can and must make this agreement better.”

Their concern is paid sick leave for rail workers, something not included in the resolutions the House passed Wednesday.

“What this means is that if a rail worker comes down with COVID, the flu or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired,” the senators said in a joint statement. “That is absolutely unacceptable.”

In a statement from the White House, Biden said the “overwhelming bipartisan vote” in the House “makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country.”

“The Senate must now act urgently,” he said. “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.  

“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 Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately,” Biden said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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