Democratic and Republican leaders lined up Tuesday behind President Joe Biden’s call for Congress to head off a potential freight rail strike, with just days left before a threatened shutdown could start to affect supplies for critical resources such as drinking water.
Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Congress needs to act soon — well before the official Dec. 9 deadline, considering that certain industries will begin sidelining freight shipments as soon as this weekend in preparation for a shutdown.
The House is steaming ahead. On Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the chamber will vote on legislation Wednesday to adopt the tentative agreement and then have a separate vote to add seven days of paid sick leave to it, after some Democrats threatened to vote against a bill that did not include additional sick leave. The package will then be sent to the Senate.
Quick passage is more complicated in the Senate, where dissenters from both parties have threatened to slow the action, saying it gives short shrift to rail workers who have been demanding sick leave, which was left out of the deal.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to address Senate Democrats on Thursday about averting a rail strike, according to a person familiar with the secretary’s plans, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the matter.
McConnell acknowledged that Congress will “need to pass a bill,” but he also characterized feelings among his fellow Senate Republicans as “mixed.”
“I think some may be inclined to vote against it,” McConnell said. “And others are arguing that the economic price of doing that is too great.”
Schumer said during a press conference that “Leader McConnell and I both want to pass it quickly” but did not give a specific timeline.
Because of the way the Senate works, one senator can still gum up the works and force leadership to hold a series of long procedural votes to make any progress. One Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said he plans to vote no on any deal the workers don’t support.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a vocal critic of the freight railroads’ time off policies that many rank-and-file workers oppose, said Tuesday he will push for a vote that aims to give rail workers more paid sick leave.
“If your question is will I demand a vote to make sure that workers in the rail industry have what tens of millions of Americans have … guaranteed paid sick leave? The answer is yes,” Sanders said, calling railroads’ dealings on the contract “a terrible example of outrageous corporate greed.”
“I’m going to do everything I can to see that these workers are treated by these railroads with respect and dignity,” he said.
Though the deadline after which workers can strike or railroads can initiate a lockout isn’t until Dec. 9, the real world impacts will begin as soon as this weekend.
Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, said a strike “effectively starts this weekend” without congressional action because fertilizer companies must prepare for a work stoppage about five days in advance.
On Monday, Biden urged Congress to pass legislation to force the tentative agreement into effect. It represents a significant rift between labor and Biden, who has resisted the move for months and described himself in a statement Monday as a “proud pro-labor President.” But he said the economic costs — up to 765,000 jobs, lost access to chemicals for clean drinking water, and farmers and ranchers unable to feed their livestock — would be too great to bear.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, one of the three unions that voted against the tentative agreement, said in a statement that it disagrees with Biden’s proposed path.
“A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the railroad workers’ concerns,” the union said in its statement. “It both denies railroad workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike.”
Many Democratic senators are calling for a speedy vote as well. But Republicans in the Senate remain a wildcard.
Rubio tweeted that “railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers,not just the union bosses,will accept.”
“But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers,” he said.
Others support moving a bill forward.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the longest-serving Republican senator, said Tuesday that he’s ready to act to impose a tentative rail labor agreement to avoid an economically devastating rail shutdown, as Biden asked Congress to do.
In a nod to the time crunch, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said that “we need to get this done sooner than the 9th, the 8th or the 7th, we need to get this done sooner because services are going to begin to shut down in the near-term,” adding: “I hope we’ll act this week.”
Carper said he’s supportive of Biden’s call for congressional action, arguing that the majority of unions involved in the negotiations voted to approve the tentative agreement. Carper said Walsh indicated to him that the agreement reached in September was the best possible outcome.
Rail worker unions and rail operators have been bargaining for years on a labor agreement, with major sticking points around paid sick leave, on-call policies and time off. Biden and Walsh in September brokered a tentative agreement between the workers unions and operators to avert a then-imminent strike and shutdown of the freight rail system.
Workers won significant pay raises and other victories in the tentative deal but paid sick leave was not one of them, and three of the 12 major unions rejected it in rank-and-file votes, teeing up a complete rail shutdown by Dec. 9 at the earliest.
The House does not appear to be as much of an obstacle. Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has been a vocal critic of the railroads, arguing that the tentative agreement did not go far enough to address quality-of-life concerns for railroad workers. But in a statement on Tuesday, DeFazio indicated that he would not oppose Biden’s plan to enshrine the tentative agreement into law.
“Congressional action appears necessary to avoid a rail stoppage, but the quality of life issues remain,” DeFazio said in the statement. “The railroads will keep losing employees and rail service will keep declining until they invest in their essential workers.”
House Democrats who said they would not support a rail agreement without additional sick leave appeared to be appeased by Pelosi’s two-vote strategy for Wednesday.
“This updated agreement sets a strong precedent: all workers deserve paid sick leave, end of story,” tweeted Rep. Chuy García (D-Ill.) “I look forward to voting.”
Some House Republicans have said they plan to support a compromise rail agreement, giving Pelosi some wiggle room if certain progressives in the House vote against the tentative contract agreement.
“I think there are 218 [votes], unquestionable,” said Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees railroads.
Congress hasn’t imposed a labor agreement on railroads since 1991. If it the tentative agreement becomes law, it means changes to sick leave policy in line with what workers want will have to wait, or be addressed by Congress at a later date.
Nick Niedzwiadek and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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