The House passes legislation to avoid a rail strike — and give workers sick days

For the first time in about 30 years, Congress has intervened ahead of a potential rail strike following calls from President Joe Biden to do so.

At Biden’s request, the House of Representatives took action Wednesday, passing two resolutions. The first resolution, which passed 290-137, would require workers to accept the tentative deal the Biden administration negotiated in September.

That agreement included a raise and an extra personal day, but did not address demands workers had for paid sick leave. Currently, railroad workers do not have paid sick days and must use vacation days instead. Effectively, this means workers must have any time off approved in advance, meaning they often have to work if they come down with an unplanned illness or have a medical emergency. The addition of a single personal day in the September agreement was intended to reflect this concern, although it did not – and has led several unions to reject the agreement.

The House’s other measure, which passed 221-207, would provide seven paid sick days in an effort to address workers’ concerns. Three Republicans joined Democrats in approving the measure, which included sick days.

Democrats’ decision to add a vote on paid sick days comes after major pushback from lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and railroad unions, who were disappointed by Biden’s push to approve a deal that didn’t adequately address the issue.

Both resolutions now go to the Senate, with the other facing some uncertainty. While Republicans have been open to pushing the White House’s deal, it’s not yet clear how many will support the addition of paid sick time. The measures were adopted separately for this purpose; regardless of whether there is enough GOP support to give workers sick days, there appear to be enough votes to ensure that a strike does not happen ahead of a Dec. 9 bargaining deadline.

Role of Congress in Limiting Railroad Strikes Briefly Explained

Congress’s approach to this railroad dispute is indicative of how much power they have to resolve such conflicts.

The Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926, gives legislators considerable latitude in how to approach the current situation. In addition to approving the preliminary agreement, Congress is able to add provisions to it, such as paid sick time. Lawmakers could also extend the time railroads and workers have to negotiate or create an independent body to help determine a settlement.

Earlier, Congress ended a strike that occurred in 1992 by establishing an arbitration system where both sides could reach an agreement. “Given that they have the power to force a settlement, I don’t think there are any limits to that,” said Cliff Winston, an economic-policy expert at Brookings.

As is the case with many bills, the main limitation lawmakers run up against is the amount of political support any measure can receive. Both resolutions under consideration would need the support of 60 members of the Senate, including 10 Republicans, some of whom have expressed openness to incorporating worker demands.

“The way to avoid a strike is a new deal that rank-and-file members will support,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently wrote in a tweet.

House vote on paid sick days follows pushback from labor

In his statement calling for congressional action, Biden referred to himself as a “proud pro-labor president,” a title his recent actions seemed to contradict. While he has certainly supported unions in the past, his call for congressional action to approve the no-sick-days agreement drew the ire of many unions.

“Enacting legislation to eliminate paid sick leave will not solve rail service problems. Rather, it will exacerbate supply chain problems and further sicken, enrage and disenfranchise rail workers while they continue to bear the brunt of railroad mismanagement,” wrote the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.

The AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor unions in the country, echoed that statement and urged Congress to approve paid sick time as part of its efforts.

“While the tentative agreement unions negotiated this year contained many critical gains — significant wage increases, caps on health premiums and prevention of staff reductions — it also fell short by not including provisions on paid sick leave or equitable scheduling,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.

Earlier, Biden had stressed that he was concerned that any changes to the existing agreement could cause delays and increase the risk of a strike. In his statement, Biden focused heavily on how significant the economic fallout would be if there is no resolution to this conflict. More than 750,000 people could be out of work during the strike, and transportation of food, fuel and other goods could come to a standstill, he noted.

Democrats’ votes on Wednesday marked an attempt to balance labor demands with concerns about the economic impact that could arise if they don’t move quickly enough to fix the problem. The joint treatment of both the September agreement and paid sick days was aimed at addressing a situation that has been difficult for the party politically as it tries to juggle competing interests.

Update, November 30 at 14:00: This story was originally published on Nov. 29 and has been updated to include the House passing two resolutions.

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