Rail unions slam Senate's 'anti-American' rejection of sick days

SMART-TD, the largest rail union, called the vote "extremely disappointing."

December 2, 2022, 12:28 PM

Some unions representing rail workers as well as the nation's largest labor organization blasted a Senate vote on Thursday denying workers paid sick days after the chamber passed a separate measure imposing a labor agreement and averting a nationwide rail strike.

The bill, which gives rail workers seven paid sick days, passed the House but was defeated by a vote of 52-43 in the Senate, as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joined Republican members in rejecting the measure. A handful of Republican members, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla, voted in favor of the bill.

"It is extremely disappointing that 43 Senators voted to prioritize the corporate greed of rail carriers and CEOs over the needs and quality-of-life improvements that our members so desperately deserve," said the SMART Transportation Division, or SMART-TD, which represents about 28,000 conductors, making it the nation's largest rail union.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees division of the Teamsters, or BMWED, which represents 12,000 members, sharply criticized the Senate vote.

"It is shocking and appalling that any Member of Congress would cast a vote against any sort of provision that raises the standard of living for hard-working Americans," a union statement said..

Nearly 80% of workers in the United States get paid sick time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's statistics.

"In fact, such a vote is nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office and you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office," it added.

SMART-TD and BMWED were among four rail unions that rejected a tentative agreement brokered by the White House in September, which later set the terms of a labor contract for rail workers passed by Congress on Thursday and signed by President Joe Biden on Friday. That contract did not provide rail workers with any paid sick days.

The contract imposed by Congress includes a 24% raise from 2020 to 2024, bonus increases and an additional paid day off.

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization representing 12.5 million workers, slammed the Senate vote denying paid sick days but applauded other parts of the imposed contract.

"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," the AFCL-CIO said in a statement.

"Rail workers keep America's economy moving, yet rail companies treat workers as essential one minute and disposable the next," the labor federation added.

The American Association of Railroads, a trade group representing rail companies, in a statement applauded the vote in Congress on Thursday that averted a nationwide strike but did not comment directly on the Senate's rejection of paid sick days.

"The Senate acted with leadership and urgency with today's vote to avert an economically devastating rail work stoppage," AAR president and CEO Ian Jefferies said on Thursday. "The product of these agreements is a compromise by nature, but the result is one of substantial gains for rail employees."

"Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees' work-life balance concerns, but it is clear this agreement maintains rail's place among the best jobs in our nation," he added.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden signs H.J.Res.100, a bill that aims to avert a freight rail strike, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Dec. 2, 2022.
President Joe Biden signs H.J.Res.100, a bill that aims to avert a freight rail strike, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Dec. 2, 2022.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

After signing the bill imposing the labor agreement on Friday, Biden said the contract helped the U.S. avert a "catastrophe," even as he acknowledged that the measure fell short of worker demands.

Biden has faced criticism for backing congressional intervention in support of labor terms rejected by some of the rail unions, despite referring to himself as a pro-union president.

"Look, I know this bill doesn't have paid sick leave these rail workers, and frankly every worker in America, deserves," Biden said. "But that fight isn't over."

"I supported paid sick leave for a long time," he added. "I'm going to continue that fight til we succeed."

Unions accused rail companies of penalizing workers for taking time off for medical reasons, since employees do not receive paid sick days. To win a favorable deal, rail companies jeopardized the nation's economy, unions said.

The National Carriers' Conference Committee, which represents the nation's freight railroads in national collective bargaining, said rail employees are provided "significant" time off and that the companies had offered a fair contract that included a considerable wage increase.

The terms of the labor contract followed guidelines issued by a presidential emergency board formed by Biden in July. Two months later, in September, the White House brokered a tentative agreement based on those terms but the deal was later rejected by 4 rail unions.

While alluding to disappointment over the Senate vote on paid sick days, Transportation Communications Union President Arthur Maratea applauded Biden's efforts to forge an agreement in a statement on Thursday.

"Regardless of our feelings on the outcome of the vote today, union members should not discount the lengths to which the Biden Administration went to deliver a Presidential Emergency Board with strong recommendations that provided our members with record wage increases, preserved our healthcare (which was under assault), and even provided an extra paid day off," he said.

ABC News' Alexandra Hutzler contributed to this report.