December 1

By Kaia Hubbard

The Senate on Thursday passed last-minute legislation to avert a railroad workers strike as pressure mounted to approve the measure ahead of the weekend amid fears that blows to critical infrastructure and the economy would begin.

The deal came together quickly in the upper chamber on Thursday, with an 80-15 vote on the legislation’s passage, amid an all-hands-on-deck effort to avoid potentially grinding the supply chain to a standstill and dealing the U.S. economy a major blow ahead of the holidays, and followed the House’s approval of the legislation on Wednesday. It now heads to the desk of President Joe Biden.

The rush to get the legislation through came amid an already-busy lame-duck session, as Biden on Tuesday urged Congress to act on the impasse between the workers and rail companies. The dispute threatened to spur the first railroad strike in nearly three decades as soon as Dec. 9, after a handful of unions rejected an agreement brokered by the Biden administration earlier this year.

The package includes a 24% pay hike over four years – the biggest wage increase in a half century – and a more generous health care plan. But it includes no paid sick days, something the holdout unions said was unacceptable for a labor force that suffered illness and death during the pandemic.

That package, already passed by the House, now heads to Biden for his signature. But efforts from both the House and Senate to incorporate paid sick leave – among the chief complaints of some of the unions that opposed the deal brokered by the White House – did not pan out.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said this week that the tentative agreement to fend off a strike that could cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion per day has secured “important advances” but noted that it does not go far enough, citing a need for paid sick leave for railroad workers.

Accordingly, the House approved a measure on Wednesday that would grant workers seven days of paid sick leave to rectify the situation, although it passed largely along party lines. But the measure failed on the Senate side on Thursday, along with another amendment that would have extended a “cooling off period” between parties to continue negotiations.

“Workers who do difficult and dangerous work have zero paid sick days,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said of the railroad workers ahead of the vote on the paid sick leave measure that he championed on Thursday. “This cannot and must not happen in America in 2022.”

The issue created an unusual political dynamic, with a handful of progressives joining some Republicans who voted against the deal’s passage on Thursday.

Indeed, Biden has been in the precarious position of looking to avert a potentially devastating blow to the economy while navigating an unusual rift with his normally supportive labor union base. Even so, he defended the deal without the paid leave components during a news conference on Thursday.

“I think we’re going to get it done, but not within this agreement,” Biden said of securing paid sick leave for workers. “We’re going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving and we’re going to go back and we’re going to get paid leave not just for rail workers, but for all workers.”