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House votes to prevent rail strike, guarantee paid sick leave

Bill will now go to the Senate, where some lawmakers will push for guaranteeing sick leave

A worker walks along tracks at a BNSF rail yard Sept. 14, 2022, in Kansas City. The third largest railroad union rejected its deal with freight railroads Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, renewing the possibility of a strike that could cripple the economy. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The House of Representatives voted 290-137 Wednesday to intervene on a potential rail strike.

They voted 221-207 on an additional resolution that would guarantee seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers. All Democratic House members voted yes on this resolution, and three Republicans joined. Those Republican congressmen who voted for sick leave were Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Brian K. Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), and John Katko (R-NY).

The bill will now go to the Senate, where some lawmakers say they demand such legislation guarantees paid sick leave. 

It is expected that the Senate will pass legislation to prevent a rail strike, but it remains unclear if the Senate will solidify demands for seven days of paid sick leave. It would be the first time since 1991 that Congress intervened on a rail labor dispute. 

Railroad workers would not be able to strike legally if this legislation passes. They could stage a “wildcat” walkout, but their employers could legally replace them or receive an injunction from a federal judge to order striking laborers back to work.  

A yearslong negotiation process

Since January 2020, the nation’s 12 rail unions and rail companies have been in labor contract negotiations. These unions collectively represent some 115,000 workers at U.S. freight rails BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific. 

In September, the White House stepped in to broker an agreement between these unions and rail employers. The tentative agreement delivered to rail employees a 24% wage increase by 2024, which would be the biggest wage increase in decades. 

However, the agreement fell short of union demands for 15 days of paid sick leave. It provided for one additional paid day off and three periods of medical leave. 

The Association of American Railroads, which represents rail companies, said in a Monday news release that the average freight rail employee receives three weeks of paid vacation and up to 14 days of personal leave. 

However, rail employees say that it’s challenging to use this time off. One railroad, BNSF, even had a policy earlier this year that penalized employees who refused to take a shift — even in the cases of medical or family emergencies. A representative said the railroad discontinued this policy in June. 

On Monday evening, President Joe Biden called upon Congress to act immediately to prevent a rail strike. Unions and lawmakers, liberal and conservative alike, slammed Biden, previously heralded as a pro-labor president. 

“The railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted on Tuesday. “But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers.”

Are you a rail worker? Email [email protected].

Rachel Premack

Rachel Premack is the editorial director at FreightWaves. She writes the newsletter MODES. Her reporting on the logistics industry has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vox, and additional digital and print media. She's also spoken about her work on ABC News, NBC News, NPR, and other major outlets. If you’d like to get in touch with Rachel, please email her at [email protected] or [email protected]