For the first time in roughly 30 years, Congress has intervened ahead of a potential rail strike, following calls from President Joe Biden to do so.
At Biden’s request, both chambers took action this week, passing a resolution requiring workers to accept a labor agreement the Biden administration negotiated in September. The House attempted to address a key concern of rail workers, also passing a resolution that guaranteed them seven days paid sick leave, but that measure stalled in the Senate after failing to clear the 60-vote threshold it needed for passage.
The White House-brokered deal included an increase in pay and an additional personal day, but it did not address demands workers had over paid sick leave. Currently, rail workers don’t have guaranteed paid sick days for short-term needs and have to use vacation time instead. They do have access to paid leave for longer-term illnesses, according to the Association of American Railroads, but for unexpected issues like an unplanned illness or a medical emergency, workers have said they have few options. In practice, workers often need to get time off approved in advance, and could be disciplined for taking a day ad hoc.
The addition of a single personal day in the September agreement was intended to acknowledge this issue, though it fell short of doing so — and has prompted multiple unions to reject the deal.
Unions had hoped that Congress would pass a provision on sick days after their negotiations with the railroads broke down earlier this month. That push created an unlikely alliance in the Senate that paired staunch progressives — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who led congressional calls for adopting sick leave language — with conservatives like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who accused Democrats of abandoning workers by pushing the Biden-negotiated deal.
Ultimately, six Republican lawmakers — Sens. Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Mike Braun (R-IN), John Kennedy (R-LA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) — joined every Democrat except for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in voting to approve the paid sick leave measure. But it wasn’t enough. Now unions will have to accept the agreement negotiated in September, averting a potential strike, but leaving one of their key demands unmet.
Congress’s role in curtailing rail strikes, briefly explained
Congress’s approach to this rail dispute is indicative of how much power they have in resolving such conflicts.
The Railway Labor Act, which was passed in 1926, gives lawmakers significant leeway over how they could approach the current situation. In addition to approving the tentative agreement, Congress could also add provisions to it, like the House tried to do with paid sick time. Lawmakers could also extend the amount of time that railroads and workers have to negotiate or set up an independent body to help determine a resolution. Unions had signaled they weren’t interested in additional negotiation time since there had already been so many delays in talks, and little likelihood the railroads would grant further benefits.
Previously, Congress ended a strike that took place in 1992 by establishing an arbitration system for both parties to reach an agreement. “Given that they have the power to force a settlement, I don’t think there are any limits on that,” says Cliff Winston, an economic policy expert at Brookings.
As is the case with many bills, the main limitation that lawmakers ran up against was the amount of political support the measures needed to pass. In the end, the effort was doomed by the lack of Republican support in the Senate.
“It’s shameful the vast majority of Republican Senators blocked essential rail workers from receiving guaranteed paid sick leave,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted following the vote.
Democrats’ vote on paid sick days follows blowback from labor
The vote, and the looming strike, placed Democrats in a difficult position.
In his statement urging congressional action, Biden referred to himself as a “proud pro-labor president,” a title his recent actions seemed to contradict. Although he’s certainly been supportive of unions in the past, his calls for congressional action to approve the agreement without sick days created an opening for Republicans to accuse Democrats of hypocrisy. Cruz, for instance, tweeted that he voted for sick leave in part because “I just don’t agree with Biden & the Democrats voting to screw the union workers.”
Democrats’ choices also raised the ire of multiple unions. “Passing legislation that excludes paid sick leave won’t address rail service issues. Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise Railroad Workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement,” wrote the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.
The AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor federations in the country, also criticized the lack of sick leave ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“While the tentative agreement unions negotiated this year included many critical gains — significant wage increases, caps on health care premiums, and prevention of crew reduction — it also fell short by not including provisions on paid sick leave or fair scheduling,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.
But Biden has emphasized that he felt he had to call on Congress to act for the greater good of the US economy. He’s said he was worried any modifications to the existing agreement could cause delays and raise 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 standoff. More than 750,000 people could be out of work during the strike, and transportation of food, fuel, and other commodities could come to a standstill, he noted.
Democrats’ votes this week marked an attempt to balance the demands of labor with concerns about the economic effects that could result if they don’t move quickly enough to address the issue. They avoided being blamed for a strike that could have caused major economic disruptions in a time of rising costs. But the ultimate outcome also forced a contract on workers that omitted one of their major asks.
Update, December 1, 5:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on November 29 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to reflect a Senate vote on the rail strike.