Legislation to avert what could have been an economically ruinous freight rail strike won final approval in Congress on Thursday. The Senate passed a bill to bind rail companies and workers to a settlement proposed in September. That settlement had been rejected by four of the 12 unions involved, creating the possibility of a strike beginning December 9.
The Senate vote was 80-15. It came one day after the House of Representatives also voted to impose the agreement. The measure then went to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.
“Communities will maintain access to clean drinking water. Farmers and ranchers will continue to be able to bring food to market and feed their livestock. And hundreds of thousands of Americans in a number of industries will keep their jobs,” the President said after the vote, promising to sign the bill into law.
The settlement included a significant 24% wage increase and benefit improvements for rail workers. But it stopped short of meeting all their demands, including extending paid sick leave.
President Biden maintains that the contract revisions are adequate. “What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had,” he says. He says he wants paid leave for “everybody,” so that it wouldn’t have to be negotiated in employment contracts. But Republican lawmakers have blocked measures that would require employers to pay for medical and family leave. They hold that employers should be free to make such decisions according to their own businesses’ budgets and abilities.
Railways say halting rail service for a time of protest could have caused a devastating $2 billion-per-day hit to the economy. As many as 750,000 workers also could have been laid off for all or part of the strike.
A freight rail strike also would have a big potential impact on passenger rail. Amtrak and many commuter railroads rely on tracks owned by the freight railroads.
The bill passed with bipartisan (both parties’) support. Some Republican lawmakers felt forcing the contract was government overreach. Some Democrats were reluctant to vote against labor unions. But both came together to keep the economy from taking another hard hit in a time of continued shortages and dramatic inflation.
Seek peace and pursue it. — Psalm 34:14
(A worker boards a locomotive at a BNSF rail yard in Kansas City, Kansas. After several rail unions rejected a proposed deal to improve worker conditions, the U.S. Congress voted to uphold the settlement in order to avert an economically damaging strike. AP/Charlie Riedel)