The Senate voted 80-15 Thursday to intervene on a potential rail strike. It is the first time since 1991 that Congress intervened on a rail labor dispute. 

The bill does not include paid sick leave, which was the key demand by rail unions. The Senate rejected a measure proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to include seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers by a vote of 52-43. Sixty votes were required to pass. 

The House of Representatives approved a separate bill to guarantee seven days of paid sick leave on Wednesday. It appears that Biden will approve legislation that does not include this sick leave. 

The Association of American Railroads, which represents rail companies, said in a Monday news release that the average freight rail employee receives three weeks of paid vacation and up to 14 days of personal leave. 

However, rail employees say that it’s challenging to use this time off. One railroad, BNSF, even had a policy earlier this year that penalized employees who refused to take a shift — even in the cases of medical or family emergencies. A representative said the railroad discontinued this policy in June.

An amendment proposed by Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Ala., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., aimed to add an additional 60-day cooling-off period to the rail negotiations. It was voted down 26-69.

President Joe Biden previously stated he expected legislation to be on his desk by Saturday in order to prevent a potentially disastrous rail strike. 

Railroad workers would not be able to strike legally if Biden approves this legislation, as he has said he will do. They could stage a “wildcat” walkout, but their employers could legally replace them or receive an injunction from a federal judge to order striking laborers back to work.  

A yearslong negotiation process 

Since January 2020, the nation’s major rail companies and its 12 rail unions have been in labor contract negotiations. These unions collectively represent some 115,000 workers at U.S. freight rails BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific. 

Operating margins for the five largest U.S. railroads hit 41% in 2021, up from 29% 10 years ago, according to Bloomberg. During the first three quarters of 2022, the rail industry earned a record $21.2 billion in profits, according to a joint statement by a group of Democratic senators.

The Class I railroads have struggled to keep railways staffed since the middle of 2020 after cutting thousands of jobs through the end of the 2010s and even more headcount during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many rail employers have made it more challenging for workers to secure time off for health or family emergencies. 

In September, the White House stepped in to broker an agreement between the unions and rail employers. The tentative agreement delivered to rail employees a 24% wage increase by 2024, which would be the largest in decades. 

However, the agreement fell short of union demands for 15 days of paid sick leave. It provided for one additional paid day off and three periods of medical leave. 

On Monday evening, Biden called upon Congress to act immediately to prevent a rail strike. Unions and lawmakers, liberal and conservative alike, slammed Biden, previously heralded as a pro-labor president. 

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

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