WASHINGTON — The U.S. House moved urgently to head off the looming nationwide rail strike on Wednesday, passing a bill that would bind companies and workers to a proposed settlement that was reached in September but rejected by some of the 12 unions involved.
The measure passed by a vote of 290-137 and now heads to the Senate. If approved there, it will be signed by President Joe Biden, who urged the Senate to act swiftly.
“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend,” Biden said. “Let me say that again: without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin.”
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation have warned that halting rail service would cause a devastating $2 billion per day hit to the economy.
Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday asked Congress to solve the labor dispute involving over 100,000 freight rail employees that threatens to exacerbate the nation’s pre-existing economic strain.
After President Joe Biden’s request on Tuesday for Congress to intervene, in a statement Wednesday morning, Scott pushed for an expedited solution to prevent a potential rail worker strike ahead of a Dec. 9 deadline imposed by major railway unions.
“A rail shutdown would severely disrupt the flow of essential resources throughout America, including heating fuels, salt for winter ice control, and many other supplies critical to the health and safety of Vermonters and all Americans,” Scott said.
“Americans cannot withstand further supply disruptions, or cost increases, and I strongly encourage Congress to move quickly and send a bill to the president’s desk,” he said.
Scott echoes the largely bipartisan support for a bill to avert a railway strike that could affect a U.S. economy already hampered by rising prices of goods. Rail is second to only trucks as the mode by which goods are transported in the U.S., according to the Department of Transportation. Trains accounted for 28 percent of the ton-miles (the standard measure for freight transportation) accumulated nationwide in 2019.
A proposed compromise, including the largest raises for rail employees in over 40 years, was agreed to in September between railway companies and eight of the 12 largest railway unions in the country.
The primary sticking point that remains for the four unions who have not ratified the agreement is a lack of paid sick time in an industry with very demanding schedules.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been a vocal proponent of the rail worker unions, and has said he would not be on board with any fast-tracked bill to resolve the dispute until the agreement includes seven days of paid sick leave for workers.
“The fact that Republicans were trying to ram through a bill that would have prevented workers from receiving the sick leave and health care benefits they deserve is an outrage,” he said in a September statement.
Because of the objections of those in Sanders’ camp, Congress will vote on a separate bill to mandate seven days of paid sick leave.
The first bill to ratify the Tentative Agreement, as it is being referred to, is expected to receive bipartisan support, even if reluctantly from some. While there is some precedent for Congress involving itself in labor disputes, legislators aren’t eager to inject themselves into such a disagreement.
“The bottom line is we are now forced with this kind of terrible situation where we have to choose between an imperfect deal that has already been negotiated or an economic catastrophe,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.