Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to impose new union contracts on the nation’s rail workers in order to avoid a nationwide strike that could hurt the economy.
The measure now heads to the Senate where a vote is expected in the coming days.
The House also approved a resolution that would give rail workers seven paid sick days per year, but that separate measure seems unlikely to make it through the Senate and to President Joe Biden’s desk.
U.S. rail carriers and a dozen unions have spent months negotiating new contracts, but have failed to reach a final deal. Four of twelve rail unions involved, including the largest, rejected a tentative agreement that labor leaders reached with the industry, creating the possibility of a strike or lockout on Dec. 9.
President Joe Biden has urged lawmakers to pass legislation forcing the deal on both sides, even though many workers say the proposal is insufficient and needs to include paid sick leave.
The second measure, adding seven days of paid sick leave to the rail contract, faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 50-seat majority and must secure 60 votes to surpass a filibuster. Only a handful of Republicans have indicated they support adding paid sick leave.
“Several Republican senators, as I understand it, have expressed support for paid sick leave,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership team, told HuffPost. “Hopefully they will be men of their word.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this week he would insist the Senate vote on a measure to add paid leave. On Wednesday, he said the extra House resolution would work — and that he expected it to get bipartisan support.
Sanders said railway executives had spent billions buying back their own stock, essentially enriching themselves, and that they exemplified the current era of corporate greed.
“These guys are making out like bandits,” Sanders told reporters. “Workers need to be treated with respect.”
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) suggested this week they wouldn’t support enforcing an agreement that union workers voted against, but both lawmakers told HuffPost on Wednesday that didn’t mean they would support enforcing a modified version of the agreement.
“If somebody can come up with a deal with the workers would support and ratify and they tell us as such, then maybe that’s something we support, but I don’t know why Congress would step in and enforce a deal that the workers have rejected,” Rubio said.
Of course, if the workers had ratified a deal on their own, Congress would not be involved in the first place.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn’t respond to a question Wednesday about whether he would bring up the House paid leave measure. Several senators, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said they hadn’t yet reviewed the proposal.
The failure of the rail negotiations has left Democrats — traditionally an ally of organized labor — in a tricky political spot.
“Several Republican senators, as I understand it, have expressed support for paid sick leave. Hopefully they will be men of their word.”
– Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)
Voting to impose the contract means overriding the judgment of rank-and-file rail workers, in a dispute that comes down largely to paid leave, a Democratic policy priority. But an extended, large-scale work stoppage could leave cargo stranded, create shortages and exacerbate decades-high inflation.
The White House said Monday that it wants Congress to impose the deal immediately without alterations because time was short. One of the unions involved, the BMWED, a division of the Teamsters, said that it was “deeply disappointed” with Biden and that no deal should be forced on workers without including paid sick leave.
Although it may seem unusual for lawmakers to step directly into a labor dispute, rail workers are subject to a different collective bargaining law than most other private-sector workers. Due to the impact a work stoppage could have on the economy, they can only go on strike after exhausting other options. Even then, Congress has the ability to step in and impose a contract before a strike.