House passes bill to avoid rail strike

a truck drivers on the highway over a train track

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to help sidestep a freight rail strike the White House fears would derail the U.S. economy. 

President Joe Biden on Monday called on Congress to pass legislation adopting the tentative agreement approved by labor and management negotiators in September – a deal that the majority of the unions in the industry have voted to approve, and one that includes a phased-in 24% pay raise, among other items. However, four of the 12 rail workers unions, including two of the largest, have rejected the deal, setting the stage for a potential work stoppage Dec. 9. Rail unions have what is generally referred to as a "me too" agreement where the terms agreed to by the last holdout will trickle down to all the others, and if all 12 unions don't agree, then all 12 could potentially strike.

In a separate measure, the House also passed a bill adding seven days paid sick leave to the tentative agreement. Union leaders were seeking 15 days of paid sick leave during initial negotiations earlier this year but the tentative agreement – brokered by the White House – only provided for one. 

"Let me be clear," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from the House floor Wednesday, "a nationwide rail shutdown would be catastrophic. A shutdown would grind our economy to a halt, and every family would feel the strain. As many as 765,000 workers, including many union members, would lose their jobs in just the first two weeks. Experts project it would cost the economy up to $2 billion a day and raise prices on consumers' products."

The bill to adopt the tentative agreement passed the House 290-137 with bipartisan support. Tacking on seven days sick time was tighter, 221-207, with just three Republicans voting in favor. Both bills now head to the Senate where the margin on both will almost certainly be tighter and the passing of either one is far from certain. 

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Wednesday issued a joint statement thanking Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for their work in negotiating the tentative agreement, adding that "Congress can and must make this agreement better."

The trucking industry is among the legions of concerned parties that have called on Congress to intervene and avert a strike that could halt 7,000 long-distance freight trains daily. Twenty-seven trucking associations on Monday co-signed a letter to Pelosi, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Leaders Mitch McConnell (Kent.) and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). Separately, NATSO, the trade group representing the nation’s travel plazas and truckstops, and SIGMA: America’s Leading Fuel Marketers, the national trade association representing fuel marketers and convenience store chain retailers in the U.S. and Canada, said would "immediately disrupt" the flow of fuel and DEF to fueling locations and truck stops. 

The rail industry last went on strike in 1991, a national work stoppage that lasted a day before Congress intervened. The following year, a walkout at USX by members of the International Association of Machinists spread nationally and lasted about two days before Congress, again, intervened. Congress is authorized by the nearly century-old Railway Labor Act to block a strike and impose a labor agreement on the workers to prevent the interruption of interstate commerce in labor disputes.