Dec 1, 2022 - Economy

Rail strike likely averted as labor bills head to Senate

Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol Buildin

Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A railroad worker strike likely won't happen now that Congress has stepped in. But a key sticking point in the standoff — whether the more than 100,000 freight rail workers get any paid sick leave — is still an open question.

The big picture: The rail workers' battle is emblematic of some of the most critical worker issues of the post-pandemic era — revolving not around money, per se, but worker leverage, quality of life and paid sick leave.

  • The high-stakes negotiation process was also a test of the Biden administration's pro-labor resolve, with some workers and organizers expressing disillusionment with the president.

What's happening: On Wednesday, the House voted 290-137 to force railroad workers to agree to the labor deal reached back in September at the White House, and now that bill is headed to the Senate where there appears to be bipartisan support. (With some uncertainty.)

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that both he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "agreed we'd try to get it done ASAP."
  • "The Senate must now act urgently," Biden said Wednesday.
  • "Let me say that again: Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin."

The intrigue: The House also voted 221-207 to give rail workers seven days of paid sick leave, in a separate bill. The deal brokered by the administration didn't include any. Some rail workers had voted down the deal over the issue.

  • Progressive lawmakers are trying to push this provision through, but it's a long shot in the Senate.
  • Meanwhile, some workers say they feel betrayed by a president they thought was on their side.
  • "Frustrated with [Biden]. Need a hero for the working class," wrote Matthew Weaver in a text message to Axios. Weaver is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, which voted down the White House agreement in October.

Yes, but: Without Biden's intervention, it's likely that the parties would still be at the bargaining table, says Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, which represents 37 unions across the transportation industry including all the rail workers.

  • "At the end of the day, this will be a big win for railroad workers," he adds.

As for the deal's failure to provide sick leave, Regan blames the rail companies.

  • "We're going to have to continue to put pressure on railroads to reform," he says. "People are now very aware of the conditions these workers are dealing with and how vital they are to the economy. They can't just go back to being forgotten."

Meanwhile, industry groups representing railroad customers expressed relief that a strike would be averted.

  • The House bill is "a welcome sigh of relief to the retail industry and all of those that rely on this key component of our nation’s supply chain,” wrote Sarah Gilmore, vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, in a statement.

Zoom out: Typically, the White House and Congress don't get involved in labor disputes — aside from making public statements — but the railroad and airline industries are different, covered by a federal labor law that allows for intervention.

  • The last time Congress stepped in to intervene in a rail dispute was in 1992 after workers had been out on strike for three days.
  • "A century ago, a railroad strike could effectively shut down the nation," the Washington Post explains. Such worker actions paved the way for the eight-hour workday, a labor historian told the paper.
  • Presidents have historically been less apt to step into private labor disputes — particularly ones that are less economically critical.
  • Our national pastime is an exception: Back in 1995, President Bill Clinton tried and failed to force an agreement between Major League Baseball Players and owners.
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