Railroad strike 2022: House votes to avert freight rail strike right before holidays, impose deal on unions

WASHINGTON– The US House of Representatives on Wednesday took urgent action to avert the looming nationwide rail strike, passing legislation that would bind companies and workers to a proposed deal reached in September but rejected by some of the 12 unions involved.

The measure was passed by a vote of 290 to 137 and is now going to the Senate. If approved there, it will quickly be signed by President Joe Biden, who requested the action.

Biden on Monday called on Congress to step in and avert the rail shutdown that could deal a devastating blow to the country’s fragile economy by disrupting the movement of fuel, food and other critical supplies. Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation warned that shutting down rail service would hurt the economy by $2 billion a day.

The bill would impose a compromise labor agreement brokered by the Biden administration, which was ultimately rejected by four of the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 workers at major railroad companies. Unions have threatened to strike if an agreement cannot be reached by December 9th.

Legislators from both parties have expressed reservations about lifting the talks. And intervention has been particularly difficult for Democratic lawmakers, who have traditionally sought to join politically powerful unions in criticizing Biden’s attempt to intervene in the treaty dispute and block a strike.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to that concern by adding a second vote on Wednesday that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for railroad workers covered by the agreement. However, it will only take effect if the Senate goes along with it and passes both measures.

The demand for more paid sick leave was a major sticking point in the talks. The railroads say unions have agreed, after decades of negotiations, to forgo paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.

The head of the Association of American Railroads trade group said Tuesday the railroads would consider adding paid sick days in the future, but said the change should await a new round of negotiations, rather than being added now towards the end of the three-year deal talks.

Unions claim that railroads can easily afford to add paid sick leave at a time when they are posting record profits. Several of the major railroad companies involved in those contract negotiations reported earnings in excess of $1 billion in the third quarter.

“Frankly, the fact that paid leave is not part of the ultimate agreement between railroads and workers is obscene in my opinion,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “He should be there and I hope he will be there at the end of this process.”

Republicans also supported the strike-blocking measure, but criticized the Biden administration for turning to Congress to “intervene to fix the mess.”

“They have unsuccessfully pulled out and taken this issue to Congress for us to decide,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.

Republicans also criticized Pelosi’s decision to include the second sick leave bill in the mix. They said the Biden administration’s own special tribunal recommended higher wages to compensate unions for not including sick leave in their recommendations.

“Why did we even set the system up the way it is if Congress comes in and makes changes to all the recommendations?” Graves said.

Pelosi sought to position the Democrats and the Biden administration as defenders of unions and slammed the railroad companies, saying they had cut jobs, increased hours and cut safety. But she said Congress must step in.

“Families couldn’t buy groceries or life-saving medicines because it would be even more expensive and perishable goods would spoil before they hit the shelves,” Pelosi said.

The compromise agreement, which was backed by the railroads and a majority of unions, provides for 24% pay increases and $5,000 in bonuses backdated to 2020, as well as an additional day of paid vacation. The pay rises would be the biggest for rail workers in more than four decades. Employees would have to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs, but their premiums would be capped at 15% of the total cost of the insurance plan. The agreement did not address workers’ concerns about schedules that make it difficult to take days off and the lack of more paid sick time.

The Biden administration issued a statement in support of Congress passing the bill implementing the recent tentative agreement, emphasizing that it would offer improved healthcare benefits and a historic pay rise. But the statement was silent on the measure, which would add seven sick days to the agreement.

“To be clear, it is United States policy to encourage collective bargaining and the administration is reluctant to overrule union ratification procedures and the views of union members who voted against the agreement,” the white said A house. “But in this case – where the social and economic impact of a shutdown would harm millions of other working people and families – Congress must use its powers to resolve this impasse.”

On several occasions in the past, Congress has intervened in labor disputes by passing legislation to delay or prohibit strikes on railroads and airlines.

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Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

https://6abc.com/freight-rail-strike-2022-congress-bill/12509870/ Railroad strike 2022: House votes to avert freight rail strike right before holidays, impose deal on unions

Alley Einstein

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