House Passes Bill to Avert a Rail Strike, Moving to Impose a Labor Agreement

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday resoundingly approved legislation to avert a nationwide rail strike by imposing a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers, as lawmakers rushed to shield the economy from the threat of a holiday-season work stoppage and prevent a disruption in shipping across the country.

Acting quickly the day after President Biden made a personal appeal at the White House, the House passed a measure that would force the rail companies and employees to abide by a tentative agreement that the Biden administration helped broker earlier this year, which increased pay and set more flexible schedules for workers.

The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 290 to 137. It goes next to the Senate, where leaders in both parties have indicated they would move quickly to avoid a disruption to the nation’s rail service.

But with liberal Democrats threatening to withhold their votes unless the legislation granted additional paid leave, a key demand of workers, the House also was set to approve a separate measure to add seven days of compensated sick time to the compact. That measure passed largely on party lines by a margin of 221 to 207, as Democrats sent it to the Senate with the support of just three Republicans. A federal law gives Congress the power to intervene in railway labor disputes.

Multiple unions have balked at the tentative agreement because of the paucity of paid family or medical leave; it includes one additional compensated day off for personal leave. With passage of the bill, the House took the first step to compel all 12 unions to accept that deal.

It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress has used its power under the Railway Labor Act to intervene in a national rail labor dispute. Leaders in both parties said they were reluctant to do so, and some Democrats — particularly progressives — were deeply frustrated about being called upon to override the will of rail workers pressing for basic workplace rights.

“At the end of the day, we really believe that our work is to have the right to paid leave, and so we’re going to stand with our workers and with our unions,” said Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, who was among the lawmakers who lobbied for a vote to add the additional time off.

Understand the Railroad Labor Talks

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Averting a shutdown. Congressional leaders vowed to prevent a nationwide rail strike, agreeing with President Biden that it could freeze a critical piece of the economy and potentially fuel further inflation in the United States. Here is what to know:

Why are rail workers threatening to strike? Unions representing tens of thousands of workers said they planned to strike if a labor agreement with the freight rail companies employing them wasn’t reached. The workers are mostly concerned with their grueling, unpredictable schedules that make it difficult to attend medical visits or family events.

Wasn’t there an agreement reached in September? The White House helped broker a tentative deal in September, but the proposal failed to win the approval of the workers at all of the unions involved. Many workers said that that deal did not address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a business model that seeks to minimize labor costs and results in chronic understaffing.

What was in that proposal? Under that agreement, new contracts would include a 24 percent increase in wages over five years and a payout of $11,000 upon ratification. Workers would also receive an additional paid day off as well as the ability to attend medical appointments without penalty.

What’s at stake for the economy? Rail freight is the centerpiece of the global supply chain. A strike would slow down the circulation of key goods within the United States and with overseas trading partners. A disruption to the rail transport of crude oil, gasoline and diesel, meanwhile, could push up gas prices and drive further inflation.

But the threat of economic damage, as well as Mr. Biden’s personal appeal for Congress to act, appeared to have provided the momentum necessary to propel the measure with unusual speed.

“We are here to safeguard the financial security of America’s families, to protect American economy as it continues to recover and avert a devastating, nationwide rail shutdown,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who defended the Biden administration’s record championing unions and their workers in a speech on the House floor.

“A nationwide rail shutdown would be catastrophic — a shutdown would grind our economy to a halt, and every family would feel the strain,” she added, pointing to the possibility of lost jobs and the inability to easily transport a variety of goods across the country. “Time is of the essence — we must act now.”

It was unclear whether the paid leave proposal had the bipartisan support necessary to pass the Senate, but by bringing it up for approval, the House left open the possibility that it could ultimately be added before the tentative agreement was cleared for Mr. Biden’s signature.

Marty Walsh, the labor secretary, and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, are set to join Senate Democrats for a caucus lunch on Thursday, according to a leadership aide.

Mr. Biden has said that the decision to ask Congress to intervene was “not an easy call,” given that he was one of six senators to oppose legislation that ended a 1992 strike and argued against interference in labor disputes. But like other top Democrats, he cited the threat of economic harm as a driving factor behind his decision.

“To be clear, it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining, and the administration is reluctant to override union ratification procedures and the views of those union members who voted against the agreement,” Mr. Biden’s budget office said in an official White House statement of support for the bill. “But in this case — where the societal and economic impacts of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — Congress must use its powers to resolve this impasse.”

Some Republicans charged that the vote was a direct result of the administration’s failure to act, mocking the contrast between Mr. Biden’s pledge to serve as the country’s most pro-union president and his decision to ask Congress to intervene.

“It never should have come to this,” said Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But he called on his colleagues to support the legislation, arguing that inaction would “absolutely cripple the economy.”

The threat of a shutdown of the nation’s freight rail system, however, ensured some Republican support for the measure. Notably, however, several top Republicans — including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who is shoring up the support needed to become speaker in January — opposed the measure.

The last-minute decision to take a separate vote on the paid leave proposal further rankled Republicans, who called it a “poison pill” that would jeopardize the broader agreement.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers to pass the measure to impose the tentative agreement negotiated in September, calling it “a necessary resolution to avert a catastrophic labor strike that would shut down rail service in America.” But it rejected the bid to add seven paid days of leave as “an unworkable, one-sided modification,” a criticism echoed by Republicans on the House floor.

“The terms of the tentative agreement found in this resolution are more than fair for railroad workers,” Mr. Graves said. He added, “it’s very sad that the majority decided to change this at the last minute.”

Only a few Democrats voted against imposing the overall agreement, with lawmakers like Representative Mary Peltola of Alaska choosing to vote only for the addition of sick leave. For several liberal Democrats, it was a necessary amendment that offset the discomfort of voting on an agreement that several unions had refused to ratify.

“I would not be able to do my job without paid sick time — every American worker deserves the same allowance,” said Representative Donald M. Payne Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, noting that he has to attend regular dialysis treatment for Type 2 diabetes. “Without paid sick time, railroad workers are forced to make a choice between their health, or the health of their families, and their paychecks.”

Stephanie Lai contributed reporting.

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