Senate Votes 80-15 to Pass Bill Blocking Nationwide Railroad Strike

Date: Friday, December 2, 2022
Source: Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—The Senate voted to intervene to prevent a nationwide strike by railroad workers while rejecting a proposal to give them expanded paid sick leave, with lawmakers saying they reluctantly heeded President Biden’s call to resolve the long-running labor dispute.

In a 80-15 vote, with one senator voting present, lawmakers agreed to force unions to adopt an earlier labor agreement mediated by the administration. The measure now goes to the White House, and Mr. Biden said he would sign it as soon as it got to his desk.

The move is expected to end the standoff between Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and other freight railroads and more than 115,000 workers. Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress can make both sides accept an agreement to prevent harm to the U.S. economy.

Mr. Biden as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers said that they didn’t like getting in the middle of the dispute but that they couldn’t risk a strike.

“Many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures,” he said after the Senate vote. “But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great.”

Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) tweeted: “A rail strike would make the rest of America collateral damage weeks before Christmas.”

At the start of the week, Mr. Biden pressed for urgent action by Congress and warned that a labor agreement needed to be set well before Dec. 9, when a cooling-off period expires and a strike could have begun.

Freight railroads and unions representing engineers, conductors, machinists and other workers have been in labor negotiations for more than two years. The White House appointed a mediation panel over the summer. Eight unions ratified a proposed contract that came out of those talks, while four didn’t. The main sticking points involved work schedules and paid sick time.

The five-year agreement, which replaces a contract that covers the period from 2015 to 2019, offers railroad workers a 24% increase in wages from 2020 through 2024. It allows for one additional paid day off, on top of existing vacation and paid time off. Workers have been working under the terms of the old contract and will get back pay.

Business leaders—spanning energy companies to fertilizer producers—had sounded alarm bells over the possibility of a railroad strike, warning that a work stoppage or a lockout at the railroads could put hundreds of thousands out of work and exacerbate supply-chain problems and inflationary pressure.

“Averting a strike is a win for our country,” said Suzanne P. Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Steve Lamar, president and chief executive of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said it is “critical for the U.S. government to help America’s supply chains restabilize.”

Unions had criticized Mr. Biden’s call for Congress to intervene, saying it undercut their bargaining position and would force some workers to accept a labor deal some had rejected.

Following the votes Thursday, the unions said they were disappointed by the rejection of paid sick leave and accused the senators who voted against that provision as cozying up to corporate donors.

The failure of the sick-leave vote “leaves me baffled, exasperated, and deeply saddened,” said Tony Cardwell, national division president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“Almost every elected member of Congress campaigns on being ‘for the working class,’” said the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen in a statement. “The actions of many today demonstrated they are for the corporate class,” the union said.

Once the labor agreement imposed by Congress is in place, rail workers are not allowed to strike, and they have been warned by their unions that such a move is tantamount to signaling their resignation.

The trade group representing railroads said the move by Washington would provide certainty, casting the imposed agreement as a compromise that provides substantial gains for workers.

“All rail stakeholders and the economy writ large now have certainty about the path forward,” said Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, adding, “There is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns.”

A strike would have cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion a day, according to the association.

Intervention by Congress is rare in recent decades. The last national rail strike, in 1991, lasted about 24 hours before Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed legislation ordering the workers back to their jobs.

The Senate action came after House lawmakers passed two measures Wednesday, one that would force the unions to implement the labor deal and one that would give union workers seven additional paid sick days. The Senate then considered both on Thursday.

The vote for additional paid sick days was defeated, despite support from almost all Democrats and a half-dozen Republicans, in a tally that scrambled party and ideological lines. The vote was 52 in favor to 43 against, short of the 60 needed to pass.

The six Republicans who joined Democrats in voting in favor of expanded benefits were Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and John Kennedy of Louisiana. All are past or potential presidential or governor candidates. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who ran for president in 2016, voted present.

Other Republican lawmakers said they didn’t support the additional leave. Sens. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.) and Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) said that while they support forced adoption of the agreement to prevent a strike, they “cannot support an agreement that goes beyond what was negotiated by all parties and what was agreed to by union leadership.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) voted against the sick-leave provision, saying he didn’t believe that Congress should alter the terms of the deal.

Senate lawmakers defeated a proposal from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska), who called for a 60-day extension beyond the Dec. 9 deadline for sides to continue negotiations. He said that the law gives Congress the power to order such extensions and that lawmakers have used this tool before. Lawmakers rejected that proposal, with 26 in favor and 69 against.

The 15 senators who voted against imposing the labor deal to end the strike represented both the left and right wings of the Senate, ranging from liberals such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to conservatives including Messrs. Cruz and Hawley. They cited various reasons, including the lack of a paid-leave provision or a preference for the 60-day extension favored by Mr. Sullivan.

“Rail workers deserve better. That’s why I voted no,” tweeted Sen. John Hickenlooper (D., Colo.). Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) tweeted: “Congress shouldn’t be meddling in labor negotiations.”

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