Reported by Alex Daugherty, Burgess Everett, Tanya Snyder and Nick Niedzwiadek for Politico Pro.
The Senate voted Thursday to avert a freight rail strike just days before crucial drinking water, food and energy shipments were set to be sidelined, after hurried talks in both chambers of Congress and a visit to the Senate from two of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries — but a bipartisan push to add paid sick leave to the deal fell short.
Ultimately the Senate voted 80-15, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting present, to pass a bill that would impose the terms of a contract negotiated among freight railroads and most of their unions in September. Four out of the 12 unions involved had been holding out for additional paid sick days, making a strike possible as soon as Dec. 9.
“I’m very glad that the two sides got together to avoid a shutdown which would be devastating for the American people, the American economy and so many workers across the country,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters, shortly after a luncheon meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh concluded.
During the lunch, Walsh and Buttigieg emphasized that the only alternative to passing the rail contract was economic calamity, according to attendees.
On Monday, Biden endorsed moving a bill that would impose the contract minus the sick days, in what he said was the interests of avoiding a rail shutdown that could have sidelined crucial drinking water, food and energy supplies starting over the weekend.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for organized labor, a core Democratic constituency — but one that Biden insisted was necessary, considering that negotiations among the parties had ground to a standstill. Biden is expected to sign the bill quickly.
“I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures. but in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country,” Biden said in a statement after the vote.
“What’s frustrating is that the railroads know that their backstop is federal government intervening in a strike,” said Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, one of the four unions that rejected the tentative agreement. “The railroads would have come running to the bargaining table if they knew that we would have been able to go on strike. But they were reliant on the Congress stopping our strike, and therefore they bargained in bad faith.”
The Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation’s freight rail companies, praised the Senate after the vote. “The Senate acted with leadership and urgency with today’s vote to avert an economically devastating rail work stoppage,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.
Two additional Senate votes — one to add seven paid sick days, and one to extend the period during which the unions can’t strike, by another 60 days — both failed, 52-43 and 25-70 respectively. Though the sick leave bill garnered more yes votes than no votes (including six from Republicans), it still failed because it did not achieve the 60-vote threshold.
“I always knew you were a socialist,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joked to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the Senate floor after he voted in favor of the additional paid sick leave.
Asked if the administration was pushing Democrats to add sick leave to the deal, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). said: “No. it was very clear. What we have is a deal that’s negotiated. It’s a fair deal.” Manchin was the sole Democrat present to vote against the expanded sick leave.
When asked Thursday why his administration didn’t ensure that the contract they helped negotiate had paid sick leave, Biden said that he would “continue to fight for paid leave” but touted the contract, which he said was “so much better than anything they ever had. “I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate,” Biden said. “The only thing that was left out was whether or not there was paid leave.”
Sentiment varied widely among Democrats and Republicans about whether to endorse paid sick leave in particular, and the way the votes were structured left a sour taste in some senators’ mouths. Rather than an amendment, the sick leave was presented as an alternative on the Senate floor to the base bill, which had more GOP support than the version with more paid leave.
“They didn’t do this as an amendment, which they could have done, because they didn’t want the sick leave to actually get into the bill,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who opposed forcing through the rail deal.
The House on Wednesday voted in favor of both the contract agreement, H.J. Res. 100 (117), and the expanded paid leave, H. Con. Res. 119 (117), after progressives and leadership worked out a compromise for including the additional sick days in a way that did not threaten the passage of the contract agreement.
The Senate vote on extending the cooling off period was widely rejected, but allowed Republicans who were unhappy with imposing a contract on union members to show their displeasure. The Transportation Trades Department, an umbrella union group for the AFL-CIO, on Thursday said they don’t support a cooling-off period extension. Negotiations between the unions and freight railroads were at a virtual standstill in recent weeks.
“Freight railroads have made it clear that they are not interested in further negotiations with rail unions. Thus, any proposal to further extend the cooling off period would yield zero progress. Rather, an extension would simply allow the railroads to maintain their status quo operations while prolonging the workforce’s suffering,” Greg Regan and Shari Semelsberger, president and secretary-treasurer of TTD, said in a joint statement.
Eight rail unions voted to accept the tentative contract agreement brokered by Biden, Walsh and Buttigieg in September while four chose to reject it, which set in motion the potential for a work stoppage beginning Dec. 9.
During the lunch with Senate Democrats, Walsh and Buttigieg emphasized that the fight over sick leave doesn’t end with passing the rail agreement, according to attendees. But future sick leave changes for freight rail workers will need to be addressed by Congress at a later date, or in the next round of contract negotiations.
Cardwell and other union leaders spent much of the week on Capitol Hill trying to shore up support for paid sick days, and they were pleased that at least a handful of Republicans voted with them, but it wasn’t enough.
“If we would have had all the Democrats vote — I know that [Raphael] Warnock, for example, was campaigning — so if we would have all the Democrats vote, which we had four that did not, and Manchin wouldn’t have screwed us, then we would have had I think 58 votes and that’s really close,” Cardwell said. “Corporations won today and the working class lost.”
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said the administration had “two messages: One, this fight over sick days is not over — and, we’re going to figure out how to fight on another front.”
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