The House moved urgently to head off the looming nationwide rail strike on Wednesday, passing a bill that would bind companies and workers to a proposed settlement that was reached in September but rejected by four of the 12 unions involved. The measure passed by a vote of 290-137 and now heads to the Senate. If approved there, it will be quickly signed by President Biden, who on Monday asked Congress to intervene and avert the rail stoppage, which would unleash an estimated $2 billion-per-day hit on the economy. The unions have threatened to strike if an agreement can’t be reached before a Dec. 9 deadline.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed reservations about overriding the negotiations. And the intervention was particularly difficult for Democratic lawmakers who have traditionally sought to align themselves with the politically powerful labor unions that criticized Biden’s move, the AP reports. Democrats responded to that concern by adding a second vote Wednesday that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for rail workers covered under the agreement; that bill passed 221 to 207, reports the Washington Post. It will take effect only if the Senate goes along and passes both measures. The call for more paid sick leave was a major sticking point in the talks.
The railroads say the unions have agreed in negotiations over the decades to forgo paid sick time in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits. The unions maintain that railroads can easily afford to add paid sick time at a time when they are recording record profits. Several of the big railroads involved in these contract talks reported more than $1 billion profit in the third quarter. Republicans voiced support for the measure to block the strike, but criticized the Biden administration for turning to Congress to "step in to fix the mess" and criticized Pelosi's decision to add the sick leave second bill to the mix. They said the Biden administration's own special board of arbitrators recommended higher wages to compensate the unions for not including sick time in its recommendations.
The compromise agreement that was supported by the railroads and a majority of the unions provides for 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020 along with one additional paid leave day. The raises would be the biggest rail workers have received in more than four decades. Workers would have to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs, but their premiums would be capped at 15% of the total cost of the insurance plan. The agreement did not resolve workers’ concerns about schedules that make it hard to take a day off and the lack of more paid sick time.
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