House Approves Imposing Railroad Labor Deal, Paid Sick Leave Measure

Lawmakers aim to end long-running dispute between freight companies and workers

The White House said Mr. Biden broadly supports providing more sick leave for rail workers, but he opposes measures that could slow down passage of the legislation and risk a strike.

“He does not support any bill or amendment that will delay getting the bill to his desk by this Saturday,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said she reluctantly supported forcing the labor agreement’s adoption, despite such a move undercutting the ability of unions to press for a better deal.

“A shutdown would grind our economy to a halt, and every family would feel the strain,” she said in a speech on the House floor in which she urged members to back both bills.

Some Republicans backed the bill to end the labor standoff, while also criticizing the White House for failing to negotiate a deal that unions and management could support.

“Why is Congress doing this? The reason is…because the president failed, the administration failed. That’s the reason this was brought to Congress,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R., Mo.), the top Republican on the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He said he plans to support the measure enforcing the labor deal and urged colleagues to do the same.

Mr. Graves, though, opposed the paid-leave proposal, saying that the tentative agreement’s terms, including its wage increases, “are more than fair for railroad workers.”

Several House and Senate Democrats have signaled that they wanted to expand sick-leave benefits as a condition of backing the labor deal.

“We have to recognize that the tentative agreements fall short—well short—of what is necessary for paid leave for rail workers,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D., Wash.). “Benefits do not replace paid sick leave. Going to work sick to earn your wage increase—who does that? Who requires that? Only the rail industry.”

Any legislation that passes the House will have to be approved by the Senate as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) proposed a similar sick-leave measure. A group of about a dozen senators including Mr. Sanders and other members of the Democratic caucus applauded the House vote on sick leave and said the Senate should also vote on the measure.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will speak to the Senate Democratic caucus on Thursday, according to a Senate Democratic aide.

The freight railroads and unions representing engineers, conductors, machinists and other workers have been in labor negotiations for more than two years. The White House appointed a mediation panel over the summer. Eight unions ratified a proposed contract that came out of those talks, while four didn’t. Both sides have agreed to a cooling-off period until Dec. 9.

Lawmakers from both parties said they were unhappy about the benefits offered to railroad workers, particularly related to paid sick leave, and said they were hesitant to force them to accept a deal. The five-year agreement, which replaces a contract that lapsed, offers railroad workers a 24% increase in wages from 2020 through 2024. It allows for one additional paid day off, on top of existing vacation and paid time off.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress can make both sides accept an agreement that their members have voted down. Lawmakers also can order negotiations to continue and delay the strike deadline for a certain period, or they can send the dispute to outside arbitrators.

Congress can also impose other conditions, such as paid sick leave, using its authority under the Constitution’s commerce clause to regulate commerce between the states, according to Thomas Kohler, a law professor at Boston College Law School.

“It’s pretty minimal paid leave and it certainly doesn’t resolve the issues that the railways and the unions have,” Mr. Kohler said of the new proposal. “This will be a problem that will continue to boil until the next labor agreement.”

Rail workers have access to benefits packages that include some form of paid sick leave, according to the Association of American Railroads, but workers say conditions placed on getting additional paid sick days off are too onerous. While the tentative agreement offers workers one additional paid personal day off that could be used as sick leave, workers who maintain tracks for instance, say they only get one additional hour of paid sick time off after 30 hours of work.

Railroad operators argue that the current benefits packages are the result of years of labor talks, and that unions have prioritized other elements such as salary over more paid sick leave.

While unions worried Congress’s intervention could undercut their bargaining position, some labor groups applauded the planned sick leave vote.

Read the full article on the Wall Street Journal.