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Senate passes rail labor pact before strike deadline, sends to Biden

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The Senate passed laws that may force a tentative rail labor agreement and thwart a national strike.

A separate vote on adding seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement failed.

The approved bill, passed by a vote of 80 to fifteen, now goes to President Joe Biden, who had urged Congress to act quickly before this month’s strike deadline and “send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately.” The measures come after talks had stalled between the railroads and 4 unions, which had previously rejected the agreement.

Biden has said he was reluctant to override the vote against the contract by some unions but stressed that a rail shutdown would “devastate” the economy. Labor groups have said that enforcing an agreement with the laws denies them the appropriate to strike.

In a press release after the Senate vote, Biden said he would sign the bill into law “as soon as Congress sends it to my desk.”

“I do know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures. But on this case, the implications of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country,” Biden said within the statement.

An aerial view of shipping containers and freight railway trains on the BNSF Los Angeles Intermodal Facility rail yard in Los Angeles, California, September 15, 2022.

Bing Guan | Reuters

The laws, which was approved by the House on Wednesday, enacts latest contracts providing railroad employees with 24% pay increases over five years from 2020 through 2024, immediate payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification and an additional paid time off.

The House on Wednesday approved a separate measure that may have added seven days of paid sick leave to the contract as an alternative of only one. That measure was defeated within the Senate vote. Paid sick leave has been the fundamental point of disagreement during negotiations between railroads and the unions.

SMART Transportation Division, which represents among the rail employees, said in a press release it was “unlucky” that its members weren’t capable of approve the labor agreement, but thanked Biden and congressional leadership for attempting to “achieve more.”

“Our members are forced to work more hours, have less stability, suffer more stress and receive less rest. The ask for sick leave was not out of preference, but fairly out of necessity,” the union said. “No American employee should ever should face the choice of going to work sick, fatigued or mentally unwell versus getting disciplined or being fired by their employer, yet that is precisely what is going on each day on this nation’s largest freight railroads.”

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Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, told CNBC earlier Thursday there’s growing concern that some rail employees will quit after receiving their backpay without guaranteed paid sick time.

“I keep hearing that some are going to try this. It is often a possibility,” he said. “I hope that does not occur. I would like every member to remain employed and luxuriate in all the advantages that we do have and we’re going to need more employees if we will have adequate break day.”

The parties had until Dec. 9 to succeed in an agreement before employees promised a strike, which the industry estimated would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day. Without an agreement, rail movement of certain goods was set to be curtailed as soon as this weekend in preparation for the strike.

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