Congressional leaders vow to avert rail strike

Photo for The Washington Post by Luke Sharrett
CSX Transportation freight trains sit parked in a rail yard in Louisville on Sept. 14, 2022.

Democratic leaders vowed to take up legislation to force a rail contract deal early Wednesday, despite objections from union members – and some in their own caucus – who raised concerns that the plan would not provide any paid sick days for workers.

That commitment threatened to plunge the divided, election-weary Capitol into yet another high-stakes, year-end debate, one that appeared to leave both parties’ lawmakers uneasy, as rail workers could strike as early as Dec. 9.

While rail carriers and other industries have praised the proposed contract deal, brokered by the White House in September, discontent and anger quickly surfaced from rank-and-file rail workers from four unions that have since voted down the deal. The four unions represent more than half of the unionized rail workers.

A rail strike would threaten the nation’s coal shipments and supply of drinking water while also shutting down passenger rail and shipments of goods as the holiday season revs up. The U.S. economy could lose $2 billion a day if rail workers strike, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would put the chamber on track to hold an imminent vote forcing a deal early Wednesday, as she looked to fill President Joe Biden’s request this week for a swift legislative intervention.

“From a timing standpoint, what we need to do right now is avoid the strike,” Pelosi said Tuesday outside the White House, after meeting with Biden and other congressional leaders. “We will act tomorrow morning, Wednesday, send the bill over to the Senate – hopefully with the biggest, strongest bipartisan vote. It is a compromise, and it is what we must do.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged to act after the House – and his GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), signaled that he agreed avoiding a strike would be a top priority.

But the prospect of a swift vote seemed uncertain hours later, as lawmakers from both parties raised early concerns about the contract they could soon ratify. Late Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would not allow the chamber to proceed unless he at least could hold a vote on adding paid sick leave to the deal.

Among Republicans, it remained unclear whether a sufficient number would supply their must-have votes to advance a bill through the narrowly divided Senate.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the longest-serving Republican senator, said he was willing to vote to impose the labor agreement to avoid a strike that would harm farmers and the agriculture industry overall.

“This has gone on long enough,” Grassley said in a statement. “If the parties cannot come to a deal by the end of the cooling off period, it may be time for Congress to step in.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, blamed the Biden administration for rushing a deal that union members voted down but also said he had not decided how he would vote.

Meanwhile, the White House, which has been closely involved in rail negotiations for months, is “confident” there will be no strike, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

In recent weeks, four rail unions out of 12 total voted down the tentative agreement brokered with help from the White House. That deal offers union members a 24 percent raise by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000 and a cap on health-care premiums. Carriers also agreed to give conductors and engineers a single additional paid day off and new flexibility to call out three times a year for routine doctor’s appointments without fear of discipline.

But many workers argue that these gains do not address issues related to chronic understaffing that prevent them from going to the doctor and attending to emergencies, as well as the lack of paid sick days.

Rail carriers have said their employees can take time off when they are sick by using paid vacation days, but some unions have said their members are typically asked to schedule time off months in advance, which does not allow them to take sick time.

“It was critical that President Biden take the leadership role he did yesterday calling on Congress to act,” Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, said on a media call Tuesday morning. “We recognize that we are in a finite timetable with an increasingly shorter timeline.”

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes – the third-largest rail union, representing some 23,000 workers – blasted Biden’s call for action, saying it denied workers both “their right to strike” and the “benefits they would likely obtain” if they were not denied that right.

“It will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise Railroad Workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement,” the union, a division of the Teamsters, said in a statement.

Rank-and-file union members expressed their disappointment that Congress may move to block their ability to strike and pressure rail carriers for paid sick days.

“I think Congress needs to stay out of our business,” said Steve Sample, 54, a rail maintainer in northern Ohio who voted against the agreement. “I don’t think [Democrats or Republicans] have our interests in mind. The biggest thing we wanted is sick days. We get one personal day.”

Others said they felt that Biden, who has promised to be the “most pro-union” president, had let them down by urging Congress to push a deal they had rejected.

“I feel that I put my heart out to get Biden elected in 2020 [based on his promise to be pro-labor], and now he’s undermining us by not helping us with sick time,” said Andy Quisenberry, a 17-year track foreman in Bowling Green, Ky., who voted against the deal.

Some unions that voted to reject the agreement were notably quiet Tuesday, probably because of internal political divisions. Leaders of SMART Transportation Division – the largest rail union, which represents most conductors and narrowly voted down the deal by 50.9 percent – did not comment.