Rail strike bill is rare rift between Democrats, unions
Senators predict they will have at least 60 votes to pass legislation approved by the House Wednesday to stop a nationwide railway strike, but a companion proposal to give railway workers more sick leave doesn’t have much Republican support.
As a result, the Democratic-controlled Congress is poised to impose a labor deal on railway workers that was rejected by four freight rail unions — a rare rift between Democrats and organized labor.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as of Wednesday afternoon had given colleagues little idea of how he would structure the votes on the two bills approved by the House — one to block the strike and a second to give railway works an additional seven days of sick leave.
But the Democratic leader made clear that he is intent on avoiding a rail strike that would freeze major parts of the supply chain and put more pressure on a national economy already struggling with 40-year-high inflation.
He said he’s working with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to “avoid a shutdown” of the railroads “and be as fair to the workers as we can be.”
President Biden called Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to the White House Tuesday to implore them to pass legislation by the end of the week to stop a rail strike that White House officials fear would have massive reverberations across the economy.
The strike deadline is Dec. 9, but congressional leaders want to act before the end of this week to avoid any disruption to the supply chain.
The vast majority of Senate Democrats are expected to pass a bill to avert a railway strike even if it doesn’t include more sick leave for workers.
But several prominent liberals, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), declined to say whether they would vote to force workers to accept the labor deal brokered by the emergency board President Biden created in July.
Sanders only said he would insist on a vote on additional sick leave but dismissed questions about how that vote needs to be set up as “speculating.”
Brown said he’s “going to insist that we have an agreement with paid leave days,” but added he didn’t want to say whether the lack of extra sick days would be a “deal breaker.”
Warren said she initially thought that Schumer would use the House-passed bill blocking the strike as the base legislation and then allow Sanders to offer an amendment to add sick leave to the contract between rail carriers and workers.
But she later said the process for considering the two proposals had yet to be decided.
That means Schumer may need 10 to 13 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, depending on how many members of his caucus defect.
The House voted 290 to 137 to pass legislation imposing a labor agreement on rail companies and workers, with 79 Republicans backing the measure and eight Democrats voting against it.
A companion bill to give rail workers seven days of sick leave per year passed by a much narrower margin, 221 to 207, with only three Republicans voting for it: Reps. Don Bacon (Neb.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and John Katko (N.Y.).
As of Wednesday afternoon, no Senate Republican had definitively committed to voting for giving workers seven days of paid sick leave.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who said he will vote against any legislation that imposes a labor deal that railway workers have already rejected, said he would have to talk to workers before deciding how to vote on the additional sick leave.
“I’d want to know what the workers say, so I’d want to talk to them and get their view on that,” he said, explaining that he’d want to make sure that any legislation giving workers more sick days would be “binding.”
“Why not allow the workers further time to negotiate this? Why not give them the opportunity to wade back in?” he said.
That view — that negotiations should be given more time — is gaining support among some Senate Republicans who on Wednesday floated the idea of passing legislation to block a strike for a month or two months to give freight carriers and the unions more time to work out a final agreement.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a counselor to Senate GOP leadership, said they didn’t think the legislation giving workers more sick leave has the votes to pass.
“I don’t know at this point where the votes are for anything,” Thune said.
Cornyn told reporters: “In terms of the precedent it would set, that it’s a bad idea for Congress to try to rewrite these collective bargaining agreements. As sympathetic I am to their desire to get more sick days … I just think there would be a long queue, a long line of different labor disputes that would end up on our door.”
A group of conservatives, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), are making the argument that Congress shouldn’t take any action and force Biden to resolve the situation or take the blame for an economically devastating rail strike.
One Republican senator said, “The natives are getting restless in the cloakroom and don’t want to give the president any political cover.”
Cruz on Thursday argued that it would be improper for Congress to force railroad workers to accept a labor deal.
“I don’t think it’s Congress’s place to jump in as the Biden White House is asking us to do and side with management overruling the union workers. I think it ought to be freely negotiated between the two,” he said.
Scott said “the Biden administration ought to figure out how to come to an agreement, get the unions and companies to come to agreement.”
But Cornyn contradicted Cruz, his home-state colleague, arguing that the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which empowers Congress to intervene to stop a railway strike, gives lawmakers full authority to act.
“I think the law says otherwise. I think it is our responsibility,” he said.