The Senate passed urgent legislation Thursday to impose a labor agreement between railroad unions and companies brokered by the Biden administration, preventing a strike that would have halted the shipment of up to 40% of the nation’s goods just weeks before the holidays.
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 80-15-1. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, voted “present.” The legislation was approved by the House on Wednesday and now heads to President Biden’s desk.
The president, who predicted widespread economic turmoil if Congress didn’t intervene in the labor dispute, said he would swiftly sign the bill into law. Union workers were eyeing a strike on Dec. 9.
Mr. Biden said he and lawmakers “have spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities.”
“Congress’ decisive action ensures that we will avoid the impending, devastating economic consequences for workers, families, and communities across the country,” the president said in a statement. “Farmers and ranchers will continue to be able to bring food to market and feed their livestock. And hundreds of thousands of Americans in a number of industries will keep their jobs.”
It was the first time since 1992 that Congress blocked a strike by railway workers, using the century-old Railway Labor Act. The last time, Mr. Biden was one of only six senators to vote against the bill to halt a strike.
SEE ALSO: Senate reaches deal to impose labor agreement on railroad workers and prevent a strike
Senators rejected a House-passed measure Thursday that would have added seven days of paid sick leave to the labor agreement. They failed to muster enough Republican support to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
The lack of extra paid leave was the main reason that four of the 12 railroad unions voted down the contract, setting up a walkout by more than 110,000 workers.
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said the labor federation was “deeply disappointing that 43 senators sided with multibillion-dollar rail corporations to block desperately needed paid sick days.”
The president promised to keep pushing for paid leave for all U.S. workers, but he said the strike deadline left no time to resolve the major sticking point in the agreement.
“We are going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and we are going to back and get paid leave not just for rail workers, but all workers,” Mr. Biden said at a joint White House press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Had Congress not acted, rail companies would have begun shuttering shipments this weekend ahead of the likely Dec. 9 strike deadline.
The legislation forces unions and rail companies to abide by a labor agreement brokered by the Biden administration in September. The deal included just one day of paid sick leave.
The five-year deal that the Biden administration helped negotiate includes a 24% pay raise and $5,000 in bonuses. Because the pay raises are retroactive to July 2020, the average rail worker will receive back pay of about $11,000.
The agreement is the largest in more than 40 years for railroad workers, bringing the average annual salary north of $110,000 by the end of the five-year deal in 2025. It also guarantees no co-pays and no increase in union members’ health insurance premiums.
The original Biden-backed deal allowed workers to take unpaid days off for doctor appointments without penalty under railroad attendance rules.
Union leaders bitterly criticized Mr. Biden for intervening in the labor dispute and for failing to support adding paid leave to the agreement. The decision has opened a rift between the Democrats’ labor base and Mr. Biden, who bills himself as the most pro-union president in history.
The action also created a difficult vote for many Democratic lawmakers who didn’t want to cross their union supporters.
“I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures,” Mr. Biden said. “But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country. And, the agreement will raise workers’ wages by 24%, increase health care benefits, and preserve two person crews.”
Major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged Congress to halt a strike that they said would have cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day. A strike was expected to create shortages of home-heating fuel, groceries and other necessities and cause another spike in inflation, which has been easing slowly from a four-decade high over the summer.
The support in the Senate for the overall legislation was bipartisan, but the opposition also transcended party lines. Democrats who voted against it said they were frustrated by the lack of paid sick leave. Republicans who were opposed questioned whether it was appropriate for the federal government to intervene in a private labor dispute.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, joined the Democrats who voted “no”: Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The Republicans who opposed it were Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania. Four senators didn’t vote.
“This is an industry that has made huge profits,” Ms. Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, told The Washington Times. “They doubled their profits during the pandemic. They’ve done $125 billion in buybacks. They’ve cut the workforce by 30%, and the way they generate those profits is with precision scheduling that requires railroad workers to be on call, essentially 365 days a year. That’s not right, it’s not safe for the workers and, frankly, it’s not safe for the rest of us.”
On the amendment to include seven days of paid sick leave, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to vote “no.” Six Republican senators crossed party lines to support it, including Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Hawley, who voted against the overall legislation.
“I don’t want to be in this spot. I didn’t ask to be in this spot,” Mr. Rubio told reporters. “But if you’re going to force us to be in this spot, then I’m going to vote for something that’s good for workers.”
The other three Republicans to back the paid sick leave amendment were Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana.