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“Congress Must Stand With Rail Workers,” Sanders Says Ahead of Potential Strike

Meanwhile, a House Republican from Pennsylvania said Sunday that Congress will intervene to stop a nationwide strike.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a "Our Future is Now" tour stop on November 6, 2022, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A House Republican from Pennsylvania said Sunday that Congress will intervene to stop a nationwide strike if rail companies and unions don’t reach a contract agreement soon, a step that would likely force workers to accept a deal without any paid sick days.

Acknowledging that rail workers “have a very reasonable ask” for better benefits and wages as they continue to labor under a punishing scheduling system, Rep. Brian Kevin Fitzpatrick said in a Fox News appearance Sunday that “Congress will not let this strike happen, that’s for sure.”

“It would be devastating for our economy” Fitzpatrick added. “We’ll get to a resolution one way or another.”

Powerful industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Railroads have been pressuring Congress to step in after members of the largest rail union in the United States voted to reject a White House-brokered contract deal that rebuffed workers’ push for at least 15 days of paid sick leave. The deal, touted by the Biden White House as a victory for workers and profitable rail companies, does not include a single paid sick day.

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress has the authority to intervene in rail labor disputes — power it has used in the past. In September, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) blocked Republican legislation that would have forced rail workers to accept the inadequate contract recommendations of an emergency board convened by President Joe Biden.

The prospect of congressional intervention ahead of a potential strike on December 9 has angered rail workers who say it would let giant companies off the hook, allowing them to continue abusing their employees while raking in record profits. Rail workers are often forced to be on call 24/7 — with minimal rest between long shifts — and are penalized for taking days off for doctor’s appointments or health emergencies.

In June, a locomotive engineer died of a heart attack after he put off a doctor’s visit when his employer BNSF — a rail giant owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway — called him into work.

“When railroads refuse to give us sick time, what they are saying is their profits are worth more than their workers and the national economy,” Ross Grooters, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, tweeted over the weekend. “Hold the railroads accountable. Tell your elected leaders to give railroad workers the sick time they need or let them strike.”

Progressive lawmakers have also placed blame for the looming strike with large railroad companies, which have been gorging on their own stock, reporting huge profits, and enriching shareholders and executives while refusing to budge on workers’ longstanding demands for basic quality-of-life benefits.

“The corporate greed never ends,” Sanders wrote Sunday. “Last year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profits after cutting their workforce by 30% over the last six years. Meanwhile, rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days. Congress must stand with rail workers.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last week that he is “hoping the railroads will get reasonable.”

“This is the 21st Century and to have skilled workers being denied sick leave, even unpaid sick leave, is unconscionable,” DeFazio told Bloomberg Government. “Freight rail companies are watching their record profits, ‘Oh my God, if we give people paid sick leave our stock might drop by a dollar.’ Give me a break.”