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Senate approves railroad labor pact before strike deadline, sends to Biden

The Senate passed legislation that would enforce a provisional railroad labor agreement and thwart a national strike.

A separate vote on adding seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement failed.

The approved bill, passed by a vote of 80 to 15, now goes to President Joe Biden, who had urged Congress to act quickly before this month’s strike deadline and “immediately send a bill to my desk for my signature.” The measures come after talks between the railway and four unions, which previously rejected the agreement, stalled.

Biden has said he was reluctant to ignore voices from some unions against the contract, but stressed that a rail closure would “devastate” the economy. Labor groups have said that forcing an agreement with the law denies them the right to strike.

In a statement after the Senate vote, Biden said he would sign the bill into law “as soon as Congress sends it to my desk.”

“I know many in Congress shared my reluctance to override union ratification procedures. But in this case, the impact of a shutdown was just too great for working families across the country,” Biden said in the statement.

An aerial view of shipping containers and freight trains at the BNSF Los Angeles Intermodal Facility yard in Los Angeles, California, September 15, 2022.

Bing Guan | Reuters

The legislation, which passed the House on Wednesday, provides for new contracts that would offer railroad workers 24% pay increases over five years from 2020 to 2024, immediate payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification and an additional paid day off.

The House passed a separate measure on Wednesday that would have added seven days of paid sick leave to the contract instead of just one. That measure was rejected by a vote in the Senate. Paid sick leave was the main point of contention during the negotiations between the railways and the unions.

SMART Transportation Division, which represents some railroad workers, said in a statement that it was “unfortunate” that its members could not approve the labor agreement, but thanked Biden and congressional leadership for trying to “achieve more.”

“Our members have to work longer hours, have less stability, have more stress and get less rest. Applying for sick leave was not out of preference, but rather out of necessity,” the union said. “No American worker should ever have to make the decision to go to work sick, tired or mentally unwell rather than be punished or fired by their employer, but that is exactly what is happening every day on this country’s largest freight rail lines. country.”

Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, told CNBC earlier Thursday that there is a growing concern that some railroad workers will quit after receiving their back pay without guaranteed paid sick leave.

“I keep hearing that some are going to do that. It’s always a possibility,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t happen. I want every member to stay employed and enjoy all the benefits we have and we will need more employees if we want to have enough time off.”

The parties had until Dec. 9 to reach an agreement before workers promised a strike, which the industry said would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day. Without an agreement, rail traffic of certain goods would already be limited this weekend in preparation for the strike.