The US House of Representatives should intervene in the rail workers’ strike and follow Biden’s call

WASHINGTON — US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday the House will pass legislation ratifying an agreement between railroad workers and operators to avert a nationwide railroad strike.

“This week, the House of Representatives will take up a bill to pass the interim deal — with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms — and send it to the Senate,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “I hope this necessary anti-strike legislation will find a strong bipartisan vote that gives America’s families confidence in our commitment to protecting their financial futures.”

The announcement follows President Joe Biden’s call Monday to direct Congress to accept the agreement reached in September, which was based on recommendations from an emergency committee set up by Biden in July.

This agreement would grant workers a 24% pay rise over five years, from 2020 to 2024; an additional personal tag; and some protection from railroad companies’ punitive attendance policies to allow workers to take time off for medical purposes without fear of discipline.

But paid sick leave was not on the table, and the board recommended unions withdraw their proposal of 15 paid sick days.

The way rail unions work is that all 12 unions – representing 115,000 freight workers – have to agree on a contract and if one disagrees, the workers represented by the others do not picket.

Eight of the 12 voted to accept and ratify the union’s tentative agreement, allowing the unions to enter a cooling-off period that was due to end on December 9, meaning the unions could then go on strike.

The unions that have not ratified the September Accord are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division – International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who make up more than half of the railway workforce.

“The most common sticking point for BMWED, BRS and IBB members has been the lack of quality of life improvements, namely the lack of paid sick leave,” says the BMWED website. “BMWED, BRS and IBB have made requests to the railways for paid sick leave, but the railways have made it clear that they will not engage in meaningful discussions or accept any proposal in this regard.”

Biden said he was concerned about no paid sick leave for railroad workers and he had pushed for legislation to enact it.

“Every other developed country in the world has such protections for its workers,” Biden said in a statement. “But at this critical moment for our economy, around the holiday season, we must not allow our deeply held belief in better outcomes for workers to deny workers the benefits of the deal they have reached, and drag this nation into a devastating shutdown of rail freight traffic.”

These negotiations over employee pay, the ability to take time off for medical appointments, and paid sick leave have been ongoing since 2019 between the unions, which represent railroad workers, and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents railroad companies.

Congress has the ability to intervene under the Railroad Labor Act, which regulates disputes between railroad companies and unions.

“We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the interim agreement — but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide railroad strike that would shut down our economy,” Pelosi said.