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President Joe Biden praised U.S. House members for their vote yesterday to avert a national rail strike and called on the Senate to take up the legislation without delay.
"Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend," Biden said in a prepared statement. "The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately."
The House passed the measure in a 290 to 137 vote, with 79 Republicans joining 211 Democrats to approve legislation that would adopt new contracts between the railroads and rail unions. The contracts include pay increases of 24% over five years from 2020 through 2024; immediate payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification; and an extra paid day off.
The contracts do not include paid sick leave, which has been the main point of contention for unions that have rejected tentative agreements with the railroads. In a separate vote, the House passed a measure that would provide seven days of paid sick leave in the contract.
The lawmakers’ action came a day after Biden called on Congress to act immediately to prevent a national rail strike. Under the Rail Labor Act, Congress can intervene if the nation’s major freight railroads and the rail unions fail to reach an agreement on a labor deal.
Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies hailed the House vote to adopt the tentative contracts, but said the paid sick leave measure would "compromise future negotiations" between railroads and unions.
"The Senate must now act quickly to implement the historic deals reached at the bargaining table and already ratified by eight of 12 unions," Jefferies said in a press release. "Unless Congress wants to become the de facto endgame for future negotiations, any effort to put its thumb on the bargaining scale to artificially advantage either party, or otherwise obstruct a swift resolution, would be wholly irresponsible and risk a timely outcome to avoid significant economic harm."
Eight of the 12 rail unions have accepted tentative agreements with the nation’s major freight railroads, but members of four unions — which combined represent about half of the nation’s rail workers — voted against ratification. Those four are the SMART-Transportation Division (yardmasters only), the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division-IBT, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.
A "cooling-off" period between those four and the railroads ends Dec. 9, after which a rail shutdown could occur.
One rail union leader — whose members approved their tentative pact with the railroads — said the House vote on paid sick leave would provide paid sick leave for all unionized workers at the Class Is.
"Today’s vote in Congress validates that paid sick leave should be included in our contracts and it’s now on to the Senate," Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said yesterday in a press release. "BLET and our labor allies will do everything possible to move this legislation there."