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Senate adopts deal to block rail strike, sending it to Biden

The vote staves off what would have been a costly shutdown entering the holiday season, but lawmakers could not act to provide rail workers with additional paid sick leave

A CSX Transportation freight train in Louisville. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)
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The Senate on Thursday adopted a measure that forces a deal between warring national freight railroads and their unions, averting a potential Dec. 9 strike that could have crippled U.S. travel and commerce ahead of the busy holiday shopping season.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan, 80-15 vote sends the measure to President Biden’s desk, as he requested earlier this week — though lawmakers were unable to provide rail workers with any of the paid sick leave benefits that union leaders vigorously sought in recent months.

Under the agreement, rail workers are set to see a roughly 24 percent pay increase by 2024 while gaining more flexibility to take time off for doctor’s appointments. The measure also grants them one paid personal day, though that does not include any new, dedicated time off for illnesses.

The deal mirrors the terms the White House brokered with railroads and union leaders this September, clinching what many at the time thought was an end to the standoff. Initially, eight of the country’s 12 rail unions approved the arrangement, hoping to avert a strike. But four other rail labor organizations opted in November to reject the proposal — opposition that constituted slightly more than half of all rail workers.

The outcome landed the negotiations in the lap of Congress, where some Democrats and Republicans seemed reluctant to wade into the talks — but resigned to the reality that inaction could cripple the economy. In both the House and Senate, Democrats led last-minute efforts to add additional paid leave days to the deal, while Republicans tried to create a “cooling off period” that would have extended the discussions into next year — but both sides failed in their attempts to revise the original terms the White House had brokered.

“Suppliers and businesses across the nation are going to begin shutting down operations soon if they think a strike is imminent,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned Thursday morning as he set the chamber on its course to vote, warning that a shutdown means “nobody wins and everybody loses.”

What you need to know about the threat of a rail strike and Congress

The result was a rare, swift bipartisan outcome that marked the first time Congress has intervened in rail negotiations since 1992, invoking a nearly century-old law to successfully ward off a strike. Such a shutdown would have cost the economy $2 billion a day, according to an estimate from the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight operators.

The Senate vote, following House passage a day earlier, quickly produced mixed, visceral reactions among labor groups that had been split over the deal from the start.

“We carry the country on our backs whether [Congress] realizes it or not,” said Tom Modica, 36, a rail mechanic in Chicago. “The fact that they are willing to force a contract down our throats to keep the railroads from shutting down means we’re important. But they get sick days, and we’re out here in the snow all day and we don’t. It’s pretty hypocritical.”

A lobbying group for major freight railroads, meanwhile, heralded what operators saw as a fair compromise. Ian Jefferies, the president of the Association of American Railroads, stressed in a statement that “the result is one of substantial gains for rail employees.”

“Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns, but it is clear this agreement maintains rail’s place among the best jobs in our nation,” he said.

For rail workers, the stakes of the fight were great. Laborers in 12 unions, representing more than 115,000 employees, had haggled for roughly three years with major rail operators particularly over their attendance policies. The workers had raised special opposition with the points-based systems that penalize them for taking time off when they are sick. In one highly publicized case, a 51-year-old union engineer put off a doctor’s visit for so long that he later died in June from a heart attack while on a train, his family said at the time.

Opposite them were six of the largest freight carriers, Warren Buffett’s BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern Railway and Canadian National. In rebuffing some of the unions’ requests, the operators argued that their employees already can take time off from work when they’re sick by using paid vacation days.

With talks at a standstill, Biden initially appointed an emergency board this summer to mediate the dispute, ultimately to no avail. Soon after, the president and his aides directly helped broker a tentative peace in late September, averting a strike 48 hours before the deadline. Eight unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, eventually voted to ratify the deal. But one of the largest organizations, the SMART Transportation Division, voted it down in November.

The outcome upended a delicate truce and prompted Biden to summon congressional leaders this week to the White House, where he urged them to take immediate action to ratify the now-imperiled agreement. Some unions later blasted the president, a longtime supporter of labor, for pushing a deal that many of their workers did not like — but Biden presented his stance as necessary and urgent to forestall an economic crisis.

“It was so much better than anything they ever had,” Biden told reporters Thursday hours before the vote.

Rail strikes that changed America

On Capitol Hill, the president’s request for intervention still troubled liberal-leaning Democrats in the House and the Senate, particularly over its lack of paid sick leave. Lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signaled they would not supply their votes unless they could secure a vote in parallel on additional sick days for rail workers. Their push came on the heels of a failed attempt last year to create national paid family and medical leave benefits.

“The American people are increasingly disgusted at the level of corporate greed they see today,” Sanders said in a floor speech Thursday, adding there is “no greater example of corporate greed than what we see in the rail industry today.”

Democratic leaders permitted such a vote in the House, adopting the rail contract along with a separate measure Wednesday that would give workers seven paid sick days. But it faltered a day later in the Senate, with lawmakers voting 52-43 on the amendment, which required 60 votes to pass.

In the process, though, it drew unexpected support from some Republicans, including Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). Their favorable votes came as a shock to some Democrats, since GOP lawmakers generally have criticized unions — and opposed federal sick leave legislation in Washington.

“I will absolutely not support it without some sick leave,” Hawley said in the days before the vote.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Biden blasted Republicans for having stood in the way of paid leave benefits previously. The president also stressed he would not “back off” from the issue, stressing: “I’ve made it very clear: I’m going to fight for paid leave, not only for rail workers but for all Americans.”

Other Republicans, meanwhile, sought to mount a last-minute effort to create a special cooling-off period that would have extended talks between union workers and rail executives into 2023. But that effort ultimately failed, delighting unions, which in recent days had come to fear they might end up with a worse deal — especially with GOP lawmakers poised to assume control of the House next year.

“The relationship between the Railroad workers and the railroads is very strained,” Tony Cardwell, the president of the rail maintenance union, said in a letter Thursday. “It has been three years since Railroad Workers have received a raise. They should not have to wait two more months.”

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.