Congress Takes Bipartisan Action to Prevent a Rail Strike
The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to implement a provisionally authorized labor contract, averting a statewide freight rail strike that President Joe Biden said would have devastated the U.S. economy.
On Thursday, the United States Senate took unusually swift action to prevent a potential rail strike during the holiday season that could jeopardize the delivery of goods across the country. The Senate voted with an overwhelming majority to impose a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers who have been locked in a stubborn stalemate.
After passing the House and Senate, the bill is ready for President Biden to sign into law. President Biden made a personal plea to Congress only a few days ago to enforce a labor deal that his administration had helped negotiate earlier this year. In an effort to mitigate the economic damage that would result from a work stoppage in the following days, he was under pressure to sign it as soon as possible. The problem remained unresolved despite the agreement's best efforts.
It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress had used its power under the commerce clause of the Constitution, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, to intervene in a national rail labor dispute. The clause allows Congress to control the flow of goods and services between the states.
The vote came a day after the House of Representatives unanimously approved the plan that would have mandated the corporations and their workers abide by the provisions of the September agreement. This proposal includes more time off, a more forgiving work schedule, and a 24 percent raise in pay over five years. Several rail unions rejected it because it didn't provide enough paid vacation time.
The Democrats in the Senate, feeling the heat from progressives who insisted on more paid time off for employees, tried to pass a bill that had previously passed the House and would have added seven days of paid medical leave to the accord, but they were unsuccessful. The final vote tally was 52 to 43, which fell short of the 60 needed for approval.
And the Republicans were unsuccessful in their attempt to get their plan to extend the timeframe for negotiations to December 9 by sixty days to allow a cooling-off period and prevent legislative action in the conflict from being adopted. It was defeated by a vote count of 70-25.
In the end, a large number of individuals from both political parties put their qualms about involving Congress in the labor conflict aside and supported the solution that the Biden administration negotiated. The result was 80 to 15, with Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky voting "present."
Mr. Biden, who had pledged to be the most pro-union president in the country's history and had championed the discussions that led to the preliminary deal, had a remarkable result at the time, which was a tremendous outcome for Mr. Biden. He did so in accordance with the Railway Labor Act, a statute that was passed in 1926 that gives the president the authority to interfere in rail labor conflicts that threaten to disrupt important commerce or transportation services.
However, even though the resulting deal resulted in higher pay and increased scheduling flexibility, numerous labor unions have voted against its ratification over the past few weeks due to the fact that it did not include paid sick leave and would require employees to take unpaid time off to attend medical appointments. Several workers felt that it did not go far enough to address the toll their challenging and irregular schedules took on them.
President Biden has asked Congress for help averting a strike in the train sector. He justified the action by noting the potential economic disaster that would result from a breakdown of the country's rail infrastructure and the subsequent inability to carry products and services throughout the country. He stressed his reluctance to go against the wishes of union workers fighting for basic workplace rights. Still, he argued that doing so was necessary to prevent an economic disaster from occurring if the country's rail network were to be disrupted. Goods and services couldn't be quickly transported across the country.
Mr. Biden became defensive when asked why he had not pushed on extra paid leave for train employees as part of the arrangement at a press conference held on Thursday at the White House. He claimed that he had "negotiated a contract no one else can negotiate." He said he would keep working to ensure all Americans had access to paid leave.
In addition, Democrats on Capitol Hill said they would have liked to avoid becoming involved in a railroad labor conflict, which Congress has done 18 times over the course of the last century. They complained about being pressured to agree to an agreement that was in direct opposition to the demands that employees were making. Mr. Biden, in an effort to allay such worries, sent Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to the Capitol on Thursday for a private lunch meeting with Democratic Senators in advance of the votes. They were there to discuss the proposed changes with the Senators.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York and the leader of the majority in the Senate, warned that "the repercussions of inactivity will be catastrophic." He went over what he referred to as a list of "severe difficulties that would arise if there is a train closure."
The Republicans, like the Democrats, complained about the situation they had been put in and questioned why Mr. Biden had not given the matter a few more days to be resolved before bringing Congress into the process.
Leaders have decided first to evaluate the suggestion made by the GOP for a cooling-off period and the proposal that was voted by the House to include the paid leave in order to allay the concerns expressed by members of both parties and to facilitate the passage of the package through the Senate.
The danger to the national economy at a time when inflation is high was cited by several senators, including some Republicans, as a major factor in their support to execute the preliminary accord.
"While this situation is undesirable, Congress must act," said Republican Senators Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota in a joint letter to their colleagues. The most appropriate course of action is to implement a deal supported by all union leadership and about half of the unionized workforce.
However, Representatives Lummis and Cramer, along with the majority of Republican lawmakers, pushed against including the paid leave plan in the final bill and instead urged Congress to stick to its current accord.
The two senators argued that it would be beneficial for everyone if the railways, rather than Congress, worked out matters like paid leave directly with their workers.
Several liberals, annoyed by the drive to force the preliminary agreement on employees, contended that the paid leave plan was an essential inclusion championed by union members.
Independent Vermont senator and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Bernie Sanders had threatened to delay action on the whole accord unless the paid leave was included in the final vote.
Mr. Sanders remarked on the Senate floor, "This is not a radical concept; it's a pretty conservative proposal." Furthermore, he said, "I would expect that we would have great support."
There was a plurality in favor of the idea but not the two-thirds necessary for approval.