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Congress passes bill meant to avert rail strike, swiftly sending it to the president

Congress has overwhelmingly passed a bill aimed at averting a nationwide rail strike that could have been an economic disaster.

The bill swiftly passed the U.S. Senate today on a bipartisan, 80-15 vote after passing the House of Representatives the prior day.

However, a measure that would have provided more paid sick leave — the center of the dispute between rail companies and unions — did not have enough Senate support to pass.

Still, the legislation now goes to President Biden, who had asked Congress to pass the legislation to intervene after talks stalled between railroads and some of the industry’s major unions.

Nationally, a rail strike could have cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, according to an estimate from the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight operators.

Joe Manchin

“A strike of that magnitude would have a painful impact on our economy and that is an unacceptable scenario as inflation continues to squeeze West Virginians and Americans heading into the holiday season,” said Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who voted for the bill.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation, 290 to 137, to provide railroad workers with 24 percent pay raises over five years, immediate payouts averaging $11,000 at ratification and an additional paid day off.

The roll call lists Congresswoman Carol Miller, R-W.Va., as a yes vote and Congressman Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., as a no vote. The roll call lists outgoing Congressman David McKinley as not voting.

A separate bill passed by the House on a narrower vote would have provided seven days of paid sick leave instead of one. The sick days have been the main sticking point in contract negotiations. There was not enough support in the Senate to pass the bill with the additional leave. Right now, rail workers don’t have guaranteed paid sick leave.

“Our rail workers provide a tremendous service to our country and I am pleased to know they will be getting a 24 percent wage increase, additional personal leave and additional provisions to protect them from being punished when they take unpaid sick leave,” Manchin said.

“While I am sympathetic to the concerns union members have raised, I do not believe it is the role of Congress to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement that has already been negotiated.”

Shelley Moore Capito

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also voted for the main bill to avert the strike. She voted against the separate measure expanding sick leave, saying Congress shouldn’t be in position of, essentially, negotiating union contracts at that level of detail.

Her position was that those negotiations should be between the rail and unions, and so she supported yet another measure that would have extended the time frame for them to reach an agreement for 60 days.

“I think their voices need to be heard, but I don’t think it’s the Senate’s role or Congress’ role to negotiate these contracts. Then we are in the business of usurping the authority of the unions, their leadership, the companies and whoever else is involved,” she said in a call with reporters earlier today.

“I just think that’s something that should be left to the private sector.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the congressional action.

“American workers, businesses and consumers will benefit from this outcome as it provides generous benefits for rail workers and certainty that rail service will not be interrupted,” stated Suzanne P. Clark, president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber.

“We must remember that our economy depends on the hard work of rail workers and the railroads, and averting a strike is a win for our country. We thank President Biden and Congress for helping secure America’s rail service.”

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler praised rail workers for standing up for a fair deal.

“While rail workers won significant wage increases and other important gains today, it’s deeply disappointing that 43 senators sided with multibillion-dollar rail corporations to block desperately needed paid sick days,” Shuler said in a statement, referring to a separate vote on the sick leave issue.

“Rail workers keep America’s economy moving, yet rail companies treat workers as essential one minute and disposable the next.”

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