House passes legislation to avert 'catastrophic' rail strike, provide rail workers paid sick leave




  • In Politics
  • 2022-11-30 18:51:00Z
  • By USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - The House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday afternoon that would help avert a freight rail strike the White House fears could cripple the U.S. economy - 30 years after Congress last intervened in a looming rail shutdown.

Lawmakers also passed a related measure that would provide seven days of additional paid sick leave to rail workers.

The bipartisan vote to avert the strike was 290-137 while the paid sick leave amendment passed 221-207 along party lines. Both measures now head to the Senate.

After the vote, President Joe Biden thanked House Democratic and Republican lawmakers for "taking urgent action" and prodded the Senate to act fast.

"Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. "The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately."

At Biden's urging, the House took up the legislation that would adopt a tentative agreement reached in September between union leaders and freight operators. Four of the 12 unions representing rail workers have since rejected the deal, setting up the impending work stoppage.

With a Dec. 9 deadline looming, lawmakers inserted themselves in the middle of a labor dispute which they said they would rather not touch. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Tuesday said the House was intervening with "great reluctance" but said the prospect of a strike that would cost the economy $2 billion every day made action necessary.

"President Biden has called on Congress to act without delay to avoid what would be a catastrophic shutdown and that's exactly what we're doing here today," Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Wednesday morning on the House floor as debate started. "The passage ... would be a win for workers across the country."

Responding to union demands, House leaders passed a separate measure that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the deal - a provision that was not part of the original agreement and that Republican lawmakers said was overly generous and unnecessary.

"We believe that the middle class is the backbone of our democracy and we believe that the middle class has a union label on it," Pelosi said Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.  

Despite the agreement, four of the 12 unions representing rail workers have rejected the deal, setting up the looming possibility of a system shutdown during the holiday period. Pelosi, who counts unions among her strongest supporters, said she was averse to Congressional intervention but said the alternative would be devastating.

"We must act to prevent a catastrophic strike that would touch the lives of nearly every family: erasing hundreds of thousands of jobs, including union jobs; keeping food and medicine off the shelves; and stopping small businesses from getting their goods to market," she wrote in a letter to fellow House members Tuesday night.

More: 'He's not stepping up': Union workers feel let down by 'pro-union' Joe Biden amid rail dispute

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed the issue must be taken up "ASAP, though it's not clear if there are enough votes to pass it.

Pelosi emphasized Wednesday morning the importance of passing a separate amendment to the bill that would provide paid sick leave to rail workers.

"It is outrageous that every developed country in the world has paid sick leave except the United States of America," she said. "No one should be at risk of losing his or her job by staying home when sick, needing to a see a doctor, or getting life-saving surgery."

While Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota, a member of the Rules Committee, said she supports the legislation to prevent a rail strike, she opposes the  including the additional paid sick leave in the deal.

"That goes well beyond the bounds of the president's own request and appointed recommendation to the point where Congress is not only stepping into collective bargaining, but now effectively negotiating on behalf of one of the parties," she said.

Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Sept.
Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Sept.  

Arkansas Republican Rep. Rick Crawford, who sits on the House Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee overseeing railroads, chided Biden  for not doing more to avert the strike despite his labor ties.

"We are here today because of the colossal failure of Joe 'Union' Biden, the president who has, by his own declaration, been the most union-friendly president in history," he said.

The agreement first worked out in September includes a 24% pay increase over five years, $5,000 bonuses, voluntary assigned days off, but only one paid day off. Currently, rail workers don't get any paid days off.

"It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it," Biden told reporters Tuesday. "The economy is at risk."

In 1992, the last time Congress intervened to stop a rail strike, then-Sen. Biden was one of six senators who voted against ending the strike.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pelosi: House must act to avert freight rail strike to rescue economy

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