The House of Representatives voted today on a measure preventing 12 rail unions from going on strike. The measure was approved by a 290-137 margin, garnering bipartisan support.
But later on Wednesday, the House took a second vote, adding paid sick time to contract language. That bill still passed the House with a much narrower 221-207 margin in a mostly party-line vote.
Although eight of the 12 unions have signed an agreement, the unions say they will go on strike unless all 12 unions have finalized a contract.
The legislation would bind the remaining unions to the same type of contract signed by the other eight unions. Now that it has passed the House, it will go to the Senate where it is expected to pass.
One of the sticking points on reaching an agreement is on sick leave. The four unions have said they would not agree to ratify a contract that does not include sick leave. The situation has put President Joe Biden in a politically challenging position. Biden, who has indicated strong support for unions, said that a rail strike could have a crippling effect on supply chains.
Given the risk of clogging supply chains in the weeks leading up to Christmas, he has urged Congress to intervene, upsetting unions. Biden convened congressional leaders on Tuesday to rally bipartisan support.
“The president has advocated for paid leave because of its importance for families, workers in our broader economy,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “This president's leadership helped secure an agreement that prevented, again, a major disruption to our economy.
“But the president is not going to take any action that would undermine the urgent need to avert a harmful rail shutdown.”
Trade groups said in a letter to Congress that a rail strike would cause a $2 billion per day loss to the economy.
It is why groups like the National Retail Federation have urged Congress to act. The National Retail Federation last week nudged Congress to intervene.
“American businesses and families are already facing increased prices due to persistent inflation, and a rail strike will create greater inflationary pressures and will threaten business resiliency. Congress must intervene immediately to avoid a rail strike and a catastrophic shutdown of the freight rail system,” said NRF CEO Matthew Shay.
Rail unions are expressing their disappointment with the Biden administration for urging Congress to take action.
“President Biden is now touting the tentative agreements that the majority of union members had voted down, despite that none of them contain any sick time whatsoever,” said Railroad Works United Co-Chair and conductor Gabe Christenson. “The most ‘labor-friendly president in history’ has proven that he and the Democratic Party are not the friends of labor they have touted themselves to be. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have for decades been in bed with corporate America and have allowed them to continue chipping away at the American middle class and organized labor.”
The possibility of a rail strike has been on the horizon for months. The Biden administration got involved during the summer by getting the sides to hold off on a strike during a 60-day cooling-off period in July. That period expired in September.
During that time, the Presidential Emergency Board came up with a recommended contract for the sides, which included a 24% compounded wage increase during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024, with a 14.1% wage increase effective immediately for union employees. The retroactive pay increase would provide an average of $11,000 per employee in back pay.
The recommendation also would give employees additional paid time off and cap employee insurance contributions at 15%.