Lawmakers and rail groups are pushing back one day after President Joe Biden called on Congress to enact legislation aimed at preventing a potentially catastrophic rail strike, saying his plan doesn’t go far enough.

Foremost, they said, the agreement does not address a concern that has been central to the negotiations: paid sick leave.

On Monday, Biden urged Congress to pass a bill that would compel the railroads and the unions to adopt the new agreement and to do so before Dec. 9, when a strike could go into effect. The last time Congress intervened in rail negotiations was 1991

“I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member,” he said in a statement. “No one should have to choose between their job and their health — or the health of their children.”

Shortly after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said legislation is underway. “It is my hope that this necessary, strike-averting legislation will earn a strongly bipartisan vote, giving America’s families confidence in our commitment to protecting their financial futures,” she said in a statement.

Senior GOP aide calls legislation to prevent rail strike ‘all but inevitable,’ but some lawmakers are breaking rank 

Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday that the House plans to vote Wednesday on the bill. She said she was confident it would pass.


Then the bill will go to the Senate, where it requires a supermajority of 60 out of 100 votes for cloture — meaning debate ends and a final vote is taken. The final vote needs 50 “yeas” to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on the need for legislation that would avert a rail strike.

“The passage of this bill is all but inevitable,” a senior Republican aide in the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions said in an interview with FreightWaves.

Several senators have broken with their parties and have criticized the bill, including Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. 

“Any bill should include the SEVEN days of sick leave rail workers have asked for,” Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., said in a statement. 

Sanders and Kristin Gillibrand, D-NY, told reporters today that they plan to offer an amendment to the Senate bill to guarantee seven days of paid sick leave. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on Tuesday night that he believes there could be “significant Republican support” for an amendment that guarantees sick leave.

The Senate bill text has not yet been released, so there haven’t been any proposed amendments. However, the simple majority required to pass the bill in the House and the Senate will make it challenging for such amendments to pass.

The aide said he anticipated that any amendments around sick leave would be “objected to.”

That will come as unwelcome news for union members who pushed for increased sick leave. Several senators said Tuesday that they would pass the bill without any amendments to guarantee sick leave.

“As I understand it, nine unions have agreed to the advisory committee’s proposal; three have not,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said, according to his press secretary. “It strikes me that the other three are the ones that ought to be brought in line, and I wouldn’t look to change the agreement.”

Unions slam Biden’s plan to prevent rail strike

Union leaders haven’t yet commented on these proposed amendments, but some are pushing for the right to strike — saying that this could secure sick leave.

Unions pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave in their new agreement. Under the tentative agreement brokered by the White House, rail workers received one additional day of paid personal leave and three annual periods off for medical care visits. There are no paid sick days under the current tentative agreement.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents large rail employers, said in a Monday statement that the average unionized Class I freight rail employees receives three weeks of paid vacation and up to 14 days for personal leave.

“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 Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way-Employes Division (BMWED), a rail union affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in a statement Tuesday.  

“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.”  

Railroad Workers United (RWU), an independent group of union members who represent different crafts in the industry, also denounced Biden’s call to Congress.

“Despite making record profits year after year,” said RWU General Secretary Jason Doering in a statement, “pumping up their stock prices to unheard-of levels, downsizing the workforce by furloughing 30% of the employees and becoming some of the most profitable corporations on Wall Street, the Class One carriers somehow cannot afford to provide sick time for their hardworking and dedicated employees.”

Rail unions and employers have been negotiating since January 2020

Eight of the 12 rail unions have ratified their labor agreement. However, four have rejected:

  • The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (rejected Oct. 10, representing 23,900 workers) 
  • The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (rejected Oct. 26, representing 6,000 workers)
  • The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (rejected Nov. 11, representing 500 workers)
  • SMART Transportation Division (rejected Nov. 21, representing 37,400 workers) 

Both sides have until Dec. 8 to reach a new labor agreement. These unions represent over 56% of unionized railroad workers affected by contract talks. 

A new labor deal for union members has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations with the railroads soon failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. Then Biden appointed the Presidential Emergency Board to take testimony and provide recommendations that would serve as a starting point for a new labor agreement.

The railroads have argued that the contract already ratified by eight other rail unions boosts average employee compensation and benefits to more than $160,000 by providing a 24% wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 to 2024.

More than 400 trade groups warned congressional leaders in a Monday letter of devastating economic impacts should there be a rail strike.

Are you a rail worker? Email rpremack@freightwaves.com.

Staff writer Joanna Marsh contributed to this report.

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