Senate votes to avert national rail strike by forcing agreement between unions, employers
The White House had asked lawmakers to intervene in the labor dispute.
The Senate on Thursday voted to avert a looming strike of the nation's railway workers by forcing a labor agreement.
A bipartisan majority of senators approved a House bill that will codify a tentative agreement between the rail companies and rail unions, which was brokered in September and subsequently rejected by some of the workers.
The Senate separately voted down two additional provisions to address the labor dispute: whether to institute a 60-day extension of the so-called cooling off period between both sides and whether to grant workers seven days of paid sick leave.
The first vote, on the cooling off period, failed 69-26.
The second vote, to add seven paid sick days for workers, needed 60 votes to pass and fell short with a 52-43 total. Six Republicans -- Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Michael Braun and John Kennedy -- voted to add sick leave while one Democrat, Joe Manchin, voted no.
The third vote, to uphold the agreement negotiated by the White House between freight employees and their bosses in September, passed 80-15.
Some of the same Republicans who voted for the sick leave provision joined five members of the Democratic caucus -- Bernie Sanders, an independent, as well as John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey -- in voting no. Those lawmakers were Sens. Susan Collins, Tim Cotton, Cruz, Bill Hagerty, Hawley, Rubio, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, and Dan Sullivan.
President Joe Biden vowed in a statement on Thursday to sign the rail agreement bill "as soon as it comes to my desk,"
"I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures," he said. "But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country. And, the agreement will raise workers’ wages by 24%, increase health care benefits, and preserve two person crews."
Biden said he'd work to further support paid sick leave.
"I have long been a supporter of paid sick leave for workers in all industries – not just the rail industry – and my fight for that critical benefit continues," he said.
Congress' move to end the labor fight came as the White House emphasized that they thought lawmakers must send legislation "by this weekend" to avert a work stoppage or the nation could see potentially “devastating effects," given how much of the economy relies on rail to move goods.
The workers' unions reacted with open dismay, they said, at the government's intervention and Biden has described himself as a "proud pro-labor" president who made a difficult decision for the good of the larger economy.
"This shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic issue, this should be an American issue," Peter Kennedy, director of strategic coordination and research at Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said in an interview with ABC News. "This should be about putting hardworking Americans first. This should be about putting our economy first. And you do that by fighting, by providing basic protections for workers."
At Biden's urging, the House on Wednesday passed a law enforcing the September tentative agreement plus separate legislation to add sick days for workers, which had become a major sticking point in the unsuccessful negotiations.
Kennedy said he "disagreed" with Biden's call on Congress to pass legislation to try and avert a strike, saying it takes away their ability to go on strike.
"I still believe that President Biden is the most pro-union president that there is, based on my experience in life. Now, with that being said, I disagree with his call on Congress. And because it takes away our ability to strike more or less, and we don't want to lose that ability because the only way we can get paid sick days and we believe is by withholding our labor," Kennedy said.
The House voted 290-137 to adopt the deal between the rail companies and employees that was negotiated by the White House and 221-207 for the sick leave -- a key provision in addressing progressive Democrats' concerns to further protect workers.
Sanders had been urging his colleagues to consider boosting paid leave provisions for the rail workers and spoke on the floor between votes on Thursday.
“Workers who do difficult and dangerous work have zero paid sick days. Zero. You get sick, you’ve got a mark against you. Couple of marks, you get fired. This cannot and must not happen in America in 2022,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the commencement of votes after a luncheon meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh concluded.
“I’m very glad that the two sides got together to avoid a shutdown which would be devastating for the American people, the American economy and so many workers across the country,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Biden said on Thursday that Congress would get a deal done to avert a railroad shutdown and that paid sick leave for those union workers would not be “within this agreement.”
An ABC analysis of the report of what had been negotiated between the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) and the unions and freight railroad carriers found that the railroad workers essentially didn't have sick days under their current contracts. They have "personal leave days" that they can schedule, which is what prompted their ask for guaranteed sick days --15 of them-- that they could use at any point.
Their bosses and the president’s board both rejected that push, fearing what they called serious operational problems. The PEB decided to give workers "one additional day of personal leave time."
The House-passed but Senate-failed bill would have given workers "7 days of paid sick leave annually."
Biden warned on Thursday that if the nation’s rails were to close over the labor dispute, “It’s going to immediately cost 750,000 jobs and cause a recession.”
“We're going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and I'm going to go back and we're going to get paid leave, not just for rail workers but for all workers," he insisted.
The Transportation Trades Department, a department of the AFL-CIO union, on Thursday said they "unequivocally and wholeheartedly" did not support a cooling off period extension past the current deadline of Dec. 9.
"Freight railroads have made it clear that they are not interested in further negotiations with rail unions. Thus, any proposal to further extend the cooling off period would yield zero progress. Rather, an extension would simply allow the railroads to maintain their status quo operations while prolonging the workforce’s suffering," Greg Regan and Shari Semelsberger, president and secretary-treasurer of TTD, said in a joint statement.
The legislative votes on the labor dispute drew a number of unusual dividing lines between Republicans and Democrats: For example, Hawley, R-Mo., joined Sanders as an early proponent of the sick leave provision.
Rubio, R-Fla., publicly tweeted his support against union leaders.
“The railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept,” he wrote in a tweet on Monday. “But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers.”
“Union bosses & Biden sold out the workers to make a deal,” Rubio then wrote in a Wednesday tweet.
Cruz, R-Texas,, said earlier on Thursday that Republicans were “the party of railroad union workers.”
After he voted yes on the amendment for paid sick leave, he walked over to Sanders on the floor and gave him a fist bump.
ABC News' Justin Gomez, Sarah Kolinovsky, Amanda Maile and Trish Turner contributed to this report.