The House approved legislation Wednesday to stop a strike by freight rail workers that threatens to jar the economy, a rare move by Congress to intervene in a labor dispute that has angered Democrats’ union base.
The final vote to impose the railroad labor agreement was 290 to 137, with 79 Republicans joining 211 Democrats in support.
In a separate vote, Democrats narrowly pushed through a provision to add seven days of paid sick leave to the labor contract over the objections of Republicans who called it a political stunt to appease Democrats’ labor supporters. Even President Biden had asked lawmakers not to make changes to the tentative agreement, fearing it would threaten passage of the legislation and pave the way for a strike.
The vote on the sick-leave measure was 221 to 207, with three Republicans voting for it. The issue of sick leave has been the major sticking point in negotiations between the unions and railroad companies, and the minimal GOP support suggests it might not survive a vote in the evenly divided Senate.
Both measures now move to the Senate, where Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg were meeting with Senate Democrats on Thursday to push for the legislation.
The president said the House action “makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country. The Senate must now act urgently.”
SEE ALSO: Republicans accuse Dems of ‘political stunt’ with attempt to add paid sick days to rail contract
“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. The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation have warned that halting rail service would cause a $2 billion per day hit to the economy.
Lawmakers in both parties who voted for imposing the labor agreement said avoiding a disruptive strike before the holidays was the top priority. They predicted fuel shortages and higher inflation if the freight-rail system came to a standstill in winter.
“The cost of moving anything will skyrocket overnight. Our businesses need certainty,” said Rep. Troy Nehls, Texas Republican, who accused Mr. Biden of lying about unions’ support for the labor deal before the midterm election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed adding the paid sick leave for railroad workers, as Democrats sought to sweeten the deal for four out of 12 rail unions that rejected the contract ahead of a Dec. 9 strike deadline.
“We all know that for too long the railroads’ ownership has made obscene profits on the backs of workers,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
SEE ALSO: Split widens between labor, Biden on move to impose contract on railroad workers to avert strike
The last-minute move by Mrs. Pelosi angered Republicans, who said Democrats were going back on a pledge not to change the terms of the tentative labor agreement reached in September. The contract called for one day of paid sick leave.
“They’re trying to renegotiate this whole process,” said Rep. Sam Graves Jr., Missouri Republican. “The president failed. The administration failed. That’s the reason this was brought to Congress.”
The tentative contract calls for 24% pay raises over five years and $1,000 bonuses per year. It also guarantees no increase in health care co-pays and would cap health insurance premiums for union members.
Republicans pointed out that the administration’s own special board of arbitrators recommended higher wages to compensate the unions for not including sick time in its recommendations.
“Why do we even have the system set up the way it is if Congress is going to come in and make changes to all of the recommendations?” Mr. Graves said.
Railroad companies also have been warning lawmakers not to change the terms of the tentative agreement.
“The ramifications of approving such a measure would disincentivize future voluntary agreements for freight railroads, Amtrak and airlines if a party in bargaining believes it can obtain a better deal from Congress than it could through good faith negotiations and the statutory [Presidential Emergency Board] process under the Railway Labor Act,” said Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies in a statement. “This ignores over 100 years of precedent and clearly usurps long-standing bargaining procedures.”
Mr. Biden had asked Congress to step in, facing a potentially disastrous railroad strike before the holidays. It was the first time Congress intervened in a potential railroad strike since 1992.
Unions have expressed anger at Mr. Biden for intervening in the dispute and then for not advocating for extra sick leave for workers.
“Joe Biden blew it,” Railroad Workers United Treasurer Hugh Sawyer said in a statement. “He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers. Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days.”
Mrs. Pelosi said in a letter to lawmakers that she was moving to impose the contract “with great reluctance.”
“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 said.
Rep. Rick Crawford, Arkansas Republican, said Democrats were trying to change the contract at the eleventh hour.
“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,” Mr. Crawford said. “Joe Amtrak, Joe Lunchbox, whatever you want to call him, he has punted this to us to deal with his colossal mistake.”
Several Republican senators have lined up against imposing the labor agreement, including Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida. But Mr. Hawley said Wednesday he would support the provision granting extra sick leave.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.