Unions bash senators for rejecting paid sick leave for rail workers

Labor leaders lashed out Thursday at senators who voted against a proposal to provide rail workers with seven days of paid sick leave. 

While the Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure to force through a railroad contract that gives workers a 24 percent raise over five years, a proposal to add paid sick days to the deal failed to reach 60 votes. All but six Republicans voted against the measure. 

“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,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. 

By pushing through the contract, which was negotiated with the help of the Biden administration in September, Congress will prevent a devastating Dec. 9 rail strike that was set to cause service disruptions as soon as this weekend. 

But lawmakers also overrode the vote of train and engine workers at SMART-TD, the largest rail union, who narrowly rejected the tentative deal last month amid concerns about paid sick leave. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against the sick leave proposal. GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Braun (Ind.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and John Kennedy (La.) were the only Republicans to support it. 

“The fact that there are not 60 senators willing to stand up to Big Business and fight for basic rights for U.S. rail workers is horrific,” tweeted Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Every senator who voted NO may not have a spine but at least they still have unlimited sick days. I’m looking at [Manchin] and 42 other cowards.”

Railroads lobbied senators to push through the Biden-negotiated deal without sick leave, arguing that lawmakers would set a bad precedent by modifying an agreement that was negotiated over a period of years. 

The deal provides key wins for workers, including the ability to take time off for medical appointments without being penalized. But at the time of the vote, workers at four unions still had not ratified a contract, citing the lack of sick days as a major factor. 

The House had voted Wednesday to approve both the agreement and additional paid sick leave after President Biden urged Congress to act this week. Biden did not tell lawmakers how to vote on the sick leave provision, instead focusing entirely on ending the strike threat.

“Working together, we have spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities,” Biden said in a statement.

Rail workers were worried about this exact outcome. They argued that railroads were refusing to meet their demands because they knew Congress wouldn’t allow a strike, sapping unions’ leverage.

Labor leaders and progressives hinted Thursday that they will continue to fight for paid sick leave through other avenues, whether it’s legislation or executive action. 

“As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I will do everything I can to make sure that rail workers in America are treated with dignity and respect,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement.

Tags Bernie Sanders Joe Biden Joe Manchin Liz Shuler rail strike unions

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