WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to impose a union contract on rail workers in order to avoid a massive strike, but lawmakers did not include paid sick leave in the deal, as many workers had demanded.
The wishes of rail workers were essentially sidelined by most Democrats who feared the devastating economic consequences of a strike, including job losses and spiking inflation.
Thursday’s 80-15 vote enables President Joe Biden to sign a bill ending a stalemate between unions and the nation’s largest rail carriers ahead of a looming strike deadline. Without intervention from Congress and the White House, workers would be permitted to walk off the job — or their employers could lock them out — starting Dec. 9.
Failing to include paid sick leave is an embarrassment for Democrats who have for years championed the issue of paid sick leave for all workers. The U.S. is the only rich country that does not require employers to give paid time off for recovering from illness. It’s also damaging to Biden, who has fashioned himself the most “pro-union president” in history.
Although it was primarily Republicans who stood in the way of paid sick leave, it was Biden who called for the Democratic-controlled Congress to intervene before workers could use their leverage and go on strike. Earlier this week, the president urged lawmakers to impose a deal as soon as possible, without trying to add sick days.
The House approved imposing the rail deal and adding sick leave in two separate votes, creating the possibility that the Senate would drop the sick leave measure. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said progressive members saw it as the best chance to get workers paid sick days since there would probably be enough votes to implement the contract anyway.
“This is the best we could do [with] the hand we were dealt,” she said on Twitter. “[The White House] sprung this on us.”
But the sick leave amendment fell short of the 60 votes needed for adoption in the Senate. Forty-six Democrats and six Republicans voted to give paid sick leave to railworkers.
Another embarrassment for Democrats is that some Republicans supported sick leave, but not all Democrats did. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) voted against it, while Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Braun (Ind.) and John Kennedy (La.) voted for it.
“I’m very reluctant about setting a precedent for us to be involved,” Manchin told HuffPost, echoing the same argument that several Republicans made against intervening in the rail dispute.
Manchin said it didn’t matter that Hawley supported a sick leave amendment since he voted against the underlying bill that the amendment modified.
“He’s against the whole thing, so that’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Manchin said.
Rail workers are subject to different collective bargaining rules than most other private-sector workers, and it is much harder for them to go on strike. If the two sides can’t reach a deal, Congress has the ability to step in and mandate a resolution because a strike or lockout could have devastating consequences for the national economy.
The push to include paid sick leave for rail workers in the bill was led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who blasted rail corporations for making record profits while refusing to accommodate the needs of their employees.
“Last year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profits after cutting their workforce by 30% over the last six years. Meanwhile, rail workers have zero guaranteed paid sick days. Congress must stand with rail workers,” Sanders said before the vote.
A dozen unions representing more than 100,000 workers have been negotiating new contracts with the nation’s major rail carriers, including CSX, BNSF and Norfolk Southern. Four out of the 12 unions, including the largest among them, rejected a recent deal brokered by the Biden administration. Sick leave has been one of the biggest sticking points.
Rail workers do not have dedicated paid sick days. Unions pushed for up to 15 paid sick days during negotiations, but carriers have maintained that they should have to use the paid personal days and vacation time they’ve bargained for over the years. A mediation panel established by Biden sided with the carriers, saying the paid sick leave would be too costly.
Rail workers have complained of brutal schedules and of being punished merely for going to the doctor. The carriers cut staffing by nearly 30% over the course of six years, and unions say their members are increasingly overworked.
“The vast majority [of us] are on call, 24-7,” Ross Grootens, an Iowa-based rail worker, told HuffPost on Tuesday. “We don’t know in advance when we’ll be able to be off. It’s really hard to schedule anything, or just exist.”
In a tentative agreement, the carriers offered an additional day of paid time off and said workers could take themselves off the schedule three times a year for medical visits without being penalized, though that time would not be paid. The package would increase wages 24% over five years.
Union leaders took that offer to their membership, and many workers voted it down as insufficient.
As soon as Biden called on Congress to enforce an agreement that unions rejected, Rubio and Hawley — two Republicans who’ve said the GOP should become the party of working people — mocked the idea of Congress stepping in to finish a deal that Biden couldn’t close. They also pledged they would support the sick leave.
“I don’t think Congress should be in a position of having to negotiate labor deals, but if we’re forced to do so, then I’ll only support one that nods towards what the workers’ priorities are,” Rubio told HuffPost.
Hawley portrayed his votes for leave but against the underlying agreement as honoring the union members who voted against the agreement in the first place. “These are hardworking folks. They’re just trying to support their families. It’s a dangerous job. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have a few days of sick leave.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh had lunch with Senate Democrats on Thursday and urged them to vote for the agreement — but not to add sick leave, according to Manchin.
“They were very clear: What we have is the deal that’s negotiated and it’s a fair deal,” Manchin said.