WASHINGTON — The Senate could take up legislation Thursday forcing a contract between national freight railroads and unions, averting a Dec. 9 strike that threatens travel, supply chains and the busy holiday shopping season.
The House-passed legislation imposing a White House-brokered deal and opposed by some union workers, faces a tricky path in the Senate. Republican lawmakers, at least 10 of whom would be needed to consider the legislation, have an array of opinions on whether to intervene and force the tentative deal. Meanwhile, some of the more liberal Democrats are pushing to allow rail workers seven days of paid sick leave.
The timing of any Senate action remained unclear early Thursday, but Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are expected to head to Capitol Hill to talk with Democrats about the agreement.
Without congressional intervention, unions are poised to strike Dec. 9. Four of 12 unions involved in the rail dispute voted down the tentative contract, brokered by the White House, because it lacked paid sick days or changes to an attendance policy that rail workers say is punitive.
A shutdown of the nation’s railway systems could cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day, according to the rail carriers trade group.
Congress hasn’t intervened in a rail strike since 1992. But on Wednesday, the House voted 290-137 to force the rail deal that was brokered by the White House earlier this year. The House also narrowly approved a separate version of the rail bill, 221-207, to give rail workers seven paid sick days, a move embraced by liberal Democrats in the House as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
President Biden has pressed the Senate to act quickly to avert a rail strike, calling for a bill to reach his desk by Saturday.
The bizarre politics around the rail strike – with the economic threat of an infrastructure shutdown prompting a pro-union Democratic president to push an agreement despite some union workers’ objections – make it harder to predict the bill’s path in the Senate.
Several liberal senators, including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pressed to adopt the version of the agreement that included paid sick days, while moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said he was undecided on whether he’d vote to add the sick days.
On the Republican side, at least one senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri said he would only favor an agreement that included sick days. “I will absolutely not support it without some sick leave,” he said. Others who previously seemed open to adding the leave, including Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), walked back that support on Wednesday, saying they did not wish to alter an agreement that had already been reached.
But several Republicans sounded wary of allowing a 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 stand a rail strike,” Sen. Mike Braun (Ind.) said. “The economy has been so screwed up over the last two years with the supply chain and other issues.”
The tentative agreement that was voted down by four rail unions included a 24 percent raise by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on health-care premiums. Carriers also agreed to give conductors and engineers a single additional paid day off and new flexibility to take off work three times a year for routine health appointments without fear of discipline.
But many workers argue that these gains do not address issues related to chronic understaffing that prevent them from going to the doctor and dealing with emergencies, as well as the lack of paid sick days.
Rail carriers have said they need to maintain their attendance policies to ensure the railroads are adequately staffed. They say employees can take time off when they are sick by using paid vacation days.
Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group negotiating on behalf of carriers, said he did not support adding paid sick days to the deal.
Matt Weaver, a carpenter with the rail maintenance workers union, who voted down the deal, said he is hopeful that some Republicans will pull through and along with Democrats pass the measure in the Senate that grants workers sick days.
“I think some Republicans would be embarrassed not to vote for sick days. Politicians are scared for their jobs,” Weaver said. “I’m excited about Bernie Sanders fighting for us and impressed that Marco Rubio and other Republicans are also standing up.”
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