House passes paid sick leave for railway workers

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday by a margin of 221-207 to pass a concurrent resolution adding seven days of paid sick leave to a White House-brokered contract that was rejected by over half of the nation’s unionized rail workforce but that President Joe Biden urged Congress to force through to prevent a nationwide rail strike next month.

Only three Republicans joined 218 Democrats to approve the paid sick leave measure. Three Republicans and one Democrat abstained.

Just minutes earlier, 79 Republicans joined 211 Democrats to pass a strike-averting resolution that would impose Biden’s heavily criticized tentative agreement, which in its original form does not guarantee any paid sick leave. Five Republicans did not vote.

Biden—a self-described “pro-labor president”—has been condemned by rail workers and progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups for pressuring Congress to use its authority under the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to ram through his deal to preempt a looming strike.

Prior to the intervention of Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who submitted an amendment to add seven days of paid sick leave to the existing settlement on Tuesday night, progressives feared that House lawmakers would advance the White House-brokered pact without trying to improve it.

In a statement praising the House for taking action to prevent a rail shutdown that “would be devastating to our economy and families across the country,” Biden failed to mention Bowman’s amendment.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), by contrast, said Wednesday in a statement that she “was proud to work alongside Rep. Bowman to push for an amendment to a rail deal that would guarantee seven days of paid leave to railroad workers.” Omar thanked House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and the chamber’s leadership for bringing the amendment to the floor.

“Railroad corporations are raking in record profits—over $20 billion last year alone,” said Omar. “Meanwhile, their workers do not even have the basic protections of a single day of paid or unpaid sick time. In the face of these record profits, railroad workers have made a simple, dignified request for the basic protections of paid leave.”

“I will always stand with rail workers and workers around the world,” she added, “and will do everything in my power to make sure their basic demands are not ignored.”

Both the strike-averting resolution and the concurrent resolution adding seven days of paid sick leave to Biden’s deal now head to the Senate.

In a joint statement released in the wake of the House votes, 12 members of the upper chamber—including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—thanked Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh “for their hard work in negotiating a tentative agreement that is better than the disastrous proposal put forward by the rail industry.”

However, they said, “Congress can and must make this agreement better.”

The lawmakers continued:

For nearly three years our nation’s rail workers have been fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic. They have kept our trains on the track even while facing unprecedented challenges.

Supply chain problems coupled with increased consumer spending and online shopping habits have put the freight rail industry under incredible strain. And as a result train crews have been working around the clock often with inflexible and unpredictable work schedules to transport everything from food and fuel to medical supplies and cleaning products.

But even as the need for worker protections and workplace flexibility have grown, railroad companies provide zero days of paid sick leave to their workers. What this means is that if a rail worker comes down with Covid, the flu, or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired. That is absolutely unacceptable.

“During the first three quarters of this year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $21.2 billion in profits,” says the statement. “Guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would only cost the industry $321 million a year—less than 2% of their total profits. Please do not tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to their workers.”

“We commend the House for addressing this outrageous situation and guaranteeing paid sick days to every rail worker in America,” Sanders and his colleagues concluded. “We urge the Senate to quickly take up the House-passed language for a roll call vote and urge our colleagues to support these workers. We look forward to bipartisan support.”

When asked Tuesday night by MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes if he thinks at least 10 Republican senators would back the paid sick leave provision, which is necessary due to the upper chamber’s anti-democratic 60-vote filibuster rule, Sanders mentioned that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) had indicated “significant” support for the amendment among his GOP colleagues.

“Look, you have a number of Republicans who claim—claim—to be supporters of the working class,” said Sanders. “Well, if you are a supporter of the working class how are you going to vote against the proposal which provides guaranteed paid sick leave to workers who have none right now? So I am cautiously optimistic that we can get this done.”

However, the fact that just three House Republicans voted for the measure does not bode well for its prospects in the Senate.

Notably, Cornyn reversed his openness to adding seven paid sick days to the contract on Wednesday, telling Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News: “I just think it’s a bad idea for Congress to try to intervene and renegotiate these collective bargaining agreements between labor and management.”

As Politico reported, “Rail workers will stay on the job until December 9, [but] certain hazardous materials are likely to start being sidelined over the weekend to avoid being stranded” in the event of a strike.


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