President & Congress intervene to stop rail strike
WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - It’s rare that the President and Congress step in to keep a strike from happening. But in this case, leaders say the nation’s economy was on the line.
The strike was expected to begin next week after four rail unions rejected an agreement on pay, health, and benefits. Eight rail unions ratified it.
On Monday, the President called for Congress to act. Then, the U.S. House & Senate voted to force the contract through. In the Senate vote held Thursday, the measure required 60 votes. It passed 80 to 15. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted present.
“We’re in a situation where the most important thing facing the national economy this week really is the continued operation of our freight rail systems. And I think everybody acting here, whether we’re talking about the administration or Congress, has done so reluctantly,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Washington News Bureau reporter Jamie Bittner. “But what we’re talking about is enacting an agreement, a tentative agreement that was reached at the bargaining table where company leaders and union leaders all gave in in some way in order to get to an overlapping agreement about how to move forward. That includes a 24% pay increase for workers that reflects how important their work is and a number of other provisions around quality of life and benefits.”
In a separate divisive vote, another measure supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to give the rail workers seven days of paid sick leave failed in the Senate by 8 votes. That Senate vote was 52-43. Forty-two Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) voted against it. The majority of Democrats and 6 Republicans voted for the measure. That includes Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John Kennedy (R-LA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Josh Hawley (R-MO).
“At a time of record-breaking profits for the rail industry, it is disgraceful that railroad workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave. As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I will do everything I can to make sure that rail workers in America are treated with dignity and respect,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.).
The President, meanwhile, said he’d support future legislation to expand sick leave for not only rail workers, but for all workers across the nation. Buttigieg echoed that there is more work to do.
“There’s no question about that. Look, this is an administration that believes in paid leave, not just for railroad workers, but for every worker in America. We’ve been pushing that from the beginning and are going to continue to press proposals to do that. But right here, in the context of these negotiations, what’s advancing in Congress is a way to make sure that those gains that workers won at the bargaining table, like the pay increases, happen. And, critically, that our transportation systems continue functioning instead of the kind of mass shutdowns and layoffs that we would have begun seeing next week if a strike had been allowed to happen,” Buttigieg said.
Despite both Republicans and Democrats voting to approve the measure to block the rail strike, that decision too had its critics.
“I’m not in favor of shoving Joe Biden’s agreement down the workers throats when the workers have voted not to accept it,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
However, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “I personally will vote to affirm the deal that was negotiated and endorsed by the president’s emergency board.”
The Association of American Railroads estimated a strike could cost the nation up to $2 billion per day. It reported a strike would halt 7,000 long-distance Class I trains per day in addition to short-line, passenger and commuter trains.
The National Federation of Retailers (NFR) and other business groups also feared the strike could send holiday shopping off the rails. The NFR said in a statement, “millions of hardworking Americans rely on the freight rail system for their jobs and the economic security of our country. A nationwide rail strike during the peak holiday season will be devastating for American businesses, consumers and the U.S. economy.”
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