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US Congress Backs Legislation to Block Rail Strike

Published: December 1, 2022
A railway worker drives a train engine while loading railcars in San Diego, California on November 30, 2022. (Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake)

WASHINGTON DC, United States — On Wednesday, Nov. 30 the U.S. Senate backed a measure to block a potentially devastating railroad strike after President Joe Biden warned of “severe economic impacts” in the coming days.

At least 73 senators voted to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on 115,000 workers after four of 12 unions rejected the deal.

The Senate earlier defeated a bid to require railroads to offer workers seven days of paid sick leave.

In the Senate, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, announced that he would object to fast-tracking Joe Biden’s proposal that Congress impose an industrial settlement, until he can get a roll-call vote on the amendment that would guarantee seven paid sick days for rail workers.

‘Catastrophic’ impact

After months of back and forth negotiations, the House approved in a 290-137 vote to impose a tentative contract deal that had been reached in September, but four key unions refused to join — citing inefficient paid-time off and benefits. The unions represented a total of 115,000 workers, including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern Corp and Kansas City Southern.

Meanwhile, Biden, who built a reputation on being pro-labor said he would personally negotiate with the unions after asking Congress to avert a strike. Biden had warned of the catastrophic impact of a rail stoppage that could begin as early as 9 December and could cost the US economy about $2 billion a day by some estimates — with chaos ensuing for freight and passenger traffic.

A rail strike could freeze almost 30 percent of U.S. cargo shipments — causing widespread job losses with inflation already busting many consumers’ budgets, and stranding millions of long-distance Amtrak passengers and commuter rail services.

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, indicated they would attempt to push through a bill to impose the settlement.

“We know much more needs to be done for railroad workers,” Pelosi said ahead of the votes. “No one should be at risk of losing his or her job by staying home when sick, needing to see a doctor or getting lifesaving surgery.”

However, the House proceeded to pass the bill to block the strike and voted 221-207 to give seven days of paid sick leave to railroad employees — a plan that faces an uncertain fate in the evenly split Senate. Both Democrats and some Republicans have expressed anger over the lack of paid short-term sick leave for railroad workers.

Reuters contributed to this report.