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The House voted to avoid a railroad strike, imposing the agreement on unions

A passenger train conductor signals a release at the Metra Arlington Heights station in Arlington Heights, Illinois, September 15, 2022. (AP Photo
A passenger train conductor signals a release at the Metra Arlington Heights station in Arlington Heights, Illinois, on September 15, 2022. (AP Photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday (Nov. 30) scrambled to pass a bill to stop the looming national railroad strike. The bill constrains companies and workers in a proposed settlement reached in September, but some of the 12 unions involved rejected the package.

The measure passed by a vote of 290 to 137 and will now go to the Senate. If approved in the Senate, it will soon be signed off by President Joe Biden, who requested the action.

Biden on Monday asked Congress to intervene to avoid a shutdown of the railroad; Because this could disrupt the transportation of fuel, food, and other critical cargo, which could be devastating to America’s fragile economy. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation, have warned that stopping rail service would hit the economy by $2 billion a day.

The bill would impose a compromise labor deal brokered by the Biden administration that was ultimately voted down by 4 of the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 employees of the large freight rail operator. Unions threatened to go on strike if no agreement could be reached by the December 9 deadline.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed reservations about overturning the talks. Intervention is especially difficult for Democratic lawmakers who have traditionally tried to ally with politically powerful unions that have criticized Biden’s move to meddle in contract disputes and block strikes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to those concerns by adding a second vote Wednesday to add seven days of paid sick leave per year for rail workers covered by the deal. However, it will only take effect if the Senate agrees and passes both measures.

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Calls for more paid sick leave were a major sticking point in the negotiations. The railroad said unions agreed to forgo paid sick leave after decades of negotiations in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.

The head of the Association of American Railroads Trade Group said on Tuesday (Nov. 29) that railroads would consider adding paid sick leave in the future, but said the change should wait for a new round of negotiations, rather than the current increase towards the end of three-year contract negotiations.

The union insists that railroads could easily increase paid sick leave when they achieve record profits. Several of the major railroads involved in negotiating these contracts reported profits of more than $1 billion in the third quarter.

“Frankly, it seems to me that paid leave is not part of a final agreement between railroad and labor, and the reality is ugly,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Republicans also expressed support for measures to stop the strike but criticized the Biden administration for instead “stepping in to resolve the chaos” through Congress.

“They retreated in defeat, and they kicked this issue out to Congress to let us decide,” said Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican congressman from Missouri.

Republicans also criticized Pelosi’s decision to add a second bill on sick leave. They said the Biden administration’s own special committee of arbitrators recommended wage increases to compensate unions for sick leave not included in their proposal.

“If Congress were going to get involved and change all the proposals, why did we set the system to the way it is? Graves said.

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Pelosi has sought to position Democrats and the Biden administration as defenders of unions and has slammed railroads, saying they cut jobs, increased working hours, and cut corners on safety. But she said Congress needed to intervene.

“American families won’t be able to buy groceries or life-saving drugs because they’re going to be more expensive and perishable goods will spoil before they hit the shelves,” Pelosi said. The

compromise deal, backed by railroads and most unions, provides for a 24 percent pay rise and a $5,000 bonus to be retroactive to 2020, plus an additional paid holiday. The raise would be the largest for a railroad worker in more than four decades. Workers will have to pay a larger share of health insurance costs, but their premium costs will be capped at 15 percent of the total cost of the insurance plan. The agreement doesn’t address workers’ concerns about shift schedules that make it difficult for them to take a day off and lack more paid sick days.

The Biden administration issued a statement supporting Congress to pass and implement the bill with the latest tentative agreement, emphasizing that it would improve health care benefits and give railroad workers a historic pay increase. But the statement was silent on measures that would add seven days of sick leave to the agreement.

“To be clear, encouraging collective bargaining is U.S. policy, and the administration is unwilling to overturn union ratification procedures and the views of union members who voted against the agreement,” the White House said. “But in this case, the social and economic impact of shutting down the railroad will hurt millions of other working people and their families.” Congress must use its power to resolve this impasse. “

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On several occasions in the past, Congress has intervened in labor disputes by legislating to postpone or prohibit railroad and airline strikes.

(This article is based on an Associated Press report.)

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