With Senate vote, Congress moves to avert rail strike


Bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate pushed through a bill that would impose an agreement between rail companies and their workers.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 1, 2022. Moving with uncommon speed, senators agreed to take up a House-passed bill that would impose a tentative agreement between rail companies and workers, which would send it to President Joe Biden. Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to impose a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers who have been locked in a stubborn stalemate, moving with uncommon speed to avert a potential holiday season rail strike that would jeopardize shipping across the country.

Passage of the measure cleared it to be signed by President Joe Biden, who just days ago made a personal appeal for Congress to act to impose a labor agreement his administration helped negotiate earlier this year, but which had failed to resolve the dispute. He was expected to sign it quickly, racing to stave off any economic fallout that could come from a work stoppage in the coming days.

It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress has used its power under the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, to intervene in a national rail labor dispute.

The action came a day after the House overwhelmingly approved the measure, which would force the companies and their workers to abide by the tentative agreement reached in September. It would include a 24% increase in wages over five years, more schedule flexibility and one additional paid day off. Several rail unions had rejected it because it lacked paid leave time.

Senate Democrats, under pressure from progressives to insist on the additional compensated time off for workers, tried and failed to push through a House-passed measure to add seven days of paid medical leave to the agreement. It was defeated 52-43, failing to secure the necessary 60 votes needed to pass.

And Republicans failed to win adoption of their proposal to extend the Dec. 9 negotiation deadline by 60 days, to provide a cooling-off period and avoid congressional intervention in the dispute. It failed on a vote of 70-25.

Ultimately, a broad bipartisan group set aside reservations about inserting Congress into the labor dispute and backed the agreement that the Biden administration negotiated. The vote was 80-15, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voting “present.”

The moment was a remarkable outcome for Biden, who had vowed to be the most pro-union president in the nation’s history and had championed the negotiations that led to the tentative agreement. He did so under the Railway Labor Act, a 1926 law that allows the president to intervene in rail labor disputes that threaten to cut off essential commerce or transportation service.

But while the resulting deal provided higher pay and more schedule flexibility, multiple unions voted against its ratification in recent weeks because it failed to include paid sick leave, and would force workers to take unpaid time off to attend medical appointments. Many employees argued it did not go far enough to address the toll of their difficult and unpredictable schedules.

With a railway strike possible in the coming days, Biden turned to Congress to intervene. He stressed his reluctance to override the will of union workers seeking basic workplace rights, but said it was necessary to address the threat of economic calamity that could be caused by a disruption to the nation’s rail system and an inability to swiftly transport goods and services across the country.

At a news conference at the White House on Thursday, Biden bristled at a question about why he had not insisted on more paid leave for rail workers in the deal, saying that he had “negotiated a contract no one else can negotiate.” He said he would continue to fight for paid leave for all Americans.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats also said they would have preferred to avoid stepping into the middle of a railroad labor dispute, something Congress has done 18 times in the past century. They groused about being called upon to embrace a deal that went against what workers were demanding. Pressing to overcome those concerns, Biden dispatched Martin J. Walsh, the labor secretary, and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, to the Capitol on Thursday to meet with Democratic senators during a private lunch before the votes.

“The consequences of inaction would be severe,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader. He ticked through a list of what he described as the “serious problems that would occur if there’s a rail shutdown.”

Republicans, too, griped about the position they had been placed in, questioning why Biden had not allowed for a few more days to resolve the dispute before involving Congress.

To quell the concerns in both parties and speed the measure through the Senate, leaders agreed to first consider the GOP proposal for a cooling-off period and the House-passed proposal to add the paid leave.

“Less than 36 hours ago, we were asked to decide on issues that are complicated, that are important, without necessary deliberations,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who sponsored the deadline extension. He said his measure would “give negotiators more time to get to an agreement and it will not make Congress the entity of last resort in these kind of negotiations.”

Other senators, including some Republicans, said the threat of damage to the nation’s economy at a moment when inflation remains high drove their votes to implement the tentative agreement.

“While this position is undesirable, Congress must act,” Sens. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, both Republicans, wrote in a joint letter to their colleagues. “Implementing an agreement that roughly half of the unionized workers support, along with all their leadership, is the most responsible path forward.”

But Lummis and Cramer, like the majority of Republicans, argued against adding the paid leave proposal and said Congress should abide by the terms of the tentative agreement.

“It is in the best interest of all parties that the railroads, not Congress, work through issues such as paid leave directly with their employees,” the two senators wrote.

Liberals, several of whom were frustrated at the push to impose the tentative agreement on workers, argued that the paid leave proposal was a necessary addition championed by union workers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee, had warned he would block expedited consideration of the overall agreement without a vote to add paid leave.

“This is not a radical idea, it’s a very conservative idea,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor. He added, “I would hope that we would have strong support.”

The proposal drew a majority, but not the supermajority needed for passage.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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