As Republicans balk at supporting paid sick leave for rail workers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said their equivocation illustrates the hollowness of recent GOP claims that the party stands for the working class.
“It would be hard for me to understand how you can be talking about a Republican working-class party if you’re not going to vote to support paid guaranteed sick leave for railroad workers who today have none,” Sanders told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Congress is intervening in a dispute between railway carriers and their workers in order to head off the possibility of a strike next month that could significantly damage the economy and worsen inflation.
The House on Wednesday passed a bill that would enforce a tentative agreement between the workers and companies like Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CSX, and the Senate could do the same in the coming days. The bill passed with 79 Republican votes.
That agreement had been negotiated with the help of the White House over the summer ― but unions representing a majority of the more than 100,000 workers wound up rejecting the deal, in part because it didn’t provide paid sick leave.
Although some already have sick days, many rail workers must use their regular paid time off to deal with illness or doctor visits. Unions initially asked for 15 days of sick leave in negotiations. Instead, the latest deal includes one additional day of paid time off.
“Big labor bosses negotiated a deal with the companies that the unions representing half the workers have rejected,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told HuffPost on Wednesday. “Why should Congress impose that deal as the solution to this problem?”
House Democrats also approved a separate resolution that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract, but only three Republicans voted for it. Rubio said that if the workers supported the paid leave measure “and they tell us as such, then maybe” he would support it.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), another leading labor advocate in Congress, also mocked Republicans who haven’t endorsed sick leave for rail workers but who’ve claimed to be fighting for the needs of workers.
He singled out Rubio after the Florida Republican suggested on Twitter that both sides should go back to the negotiating table.
“They’re now the working-class party, man,” Brown said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Marco Rubio’s a populist. They’re there, man, they want to help workers. They’re the Trotskyite party.”
Rail workers should not be penalized for missing work if they get sick, a dozen Senate Democrats led by Sanders said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.
“During the first three quarters of this year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $21.2 billion in profits,” the senators’ statement read. “Guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers would only cost the industry $321 million a year ― less than 2 percent of their total profits. Please do not tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to their workers.”
After a meeting at the White House this week, Republican leadership indicated that they would support President Joe Biden’s call to enforce the tentative agreement. Congress has the power to step in because federal law gives rail workers less leeway to strike, due to the industry’s outsize role in the economy.
It seems likely that the Senate would pass the bill enforcing the summer agreement, but less likely that the separate paid leave provision would win the necessary 10 Republican votes.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) ― who declared this month that the “old Republican Party is dead” and that the GOP must now represent “America’s working people” ― said he would not vote for the Biden-endorsed agreement. But, he said, he would support the separate measure adding paid leave to the deal.
However, Hawley and other Republicans have suggested it might be better not to vote for the underlying agreement so the unions and the rail carriers could resume negotiations, even though they had already reached an impasse. Hawley suggested another “cooling-off” period that would allow negotiations to continue without the threat of a strike.
“That, to me, seems very reasonable,” Hawley said. “I think that’s probably what the workers would like most of all.”
Dave Jamieson contributed reporting.