The U.S. Senate will vote on Thursday on a bill to block a national railroad strike, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, as well as a bill that would provide paid sick days to railroad workers.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to approve a bill to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers, who could strike on Dec. 9. The House also separately voted to require seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers, a measure the White House has not endorsed.
Democratic and Republican leaders came to an agreement on expediting votes, known as a time agreement, and the Senate will vote on both bills on Thursday.
“Votes will be quick,” Schumer said on the Senate floor in announcing the timing. “I am glad that the two sides have come together so that we can avoid this shutdown, which would be extremely damaging to the country.”
A vote will also take place on a proposal to extend the “cooling off” period before workers could go on strike, Schumer said.
U.S. President Joe Biden has praised the proposed contract that includes a 24% compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments, and he had asked Congress to impose the contract without any modifications.
Without the legislation, rail workers could go on strike as soon as Dec. 9, but the impacts would be felt as soon as this weekend as railroads stop accepting hazardous materials shipments.
A rail strike could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day and strand millions of rail passengers.
Biden’s administration pressed the Senate to pass the bill rapidly, warning that serious economic disruptions could be felt within days.
“There is no substitute in the American transportation system for a functioning freight rail network,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNBC. “It wouldn’t just bring down our rail system, it would really shut down our economy.”
Senator Bernie Sanders and others demanded a separate vote on the sick leave issue as a condition of agreeing to fast-track consideration of the rail contract vote. He denounced railroad companies for refusing to offer paid sick leave.
“They are maybe the worst case of corporate greed that I have seen,” Sanders said. “That is really barbaric in the year 2022 in America.”
Schumer said he wants to see paid sick leave included in the legislation.
Based on the recommendations of an emergency board appointed by Biden, railroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose amending the contract deal struck in September. The American Association of Railroads said the sick leave proposal would “undermine bargaining and artificially add to contracts beyond the scope of the Biden-endorsed agreements.”
There are no paid short-term sick days under the tentative deal after unions asked for 15 and railroads settled on one personal day.
Eight of 12 unions have ratified the deal. But some labor leaders have criticized Biden for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.