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“Every Worker Deserves Paid Sick Leave”: Progressives Rally Behind Rail Workers

The House is slated to vote on forcing the adoption of a rail contract that excludes the key union demand.

A worker is seen in a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard on November 21, 2022, in Los Angeles, California.

As the House prepares to vote Wednesday morning to force the adoption of a rail contract and avert a rail strike, a growing number of progressives in Congress are calling for the inclusion of a key sick leave demand for which unions and workers have pleaded for months.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) appears to be leading the charge for the provision in Congress, telling reporters it is “outrageous” that the agreement, negotiated with the White House in September, lacks union members’ paid sick leave request. He is planning to demand a Senate vote on a provision to provide workers with sick leave.

“Will I demand a vote to ensure that workers in the railroad industry have what tens of millions of workers have, and workers here on Capitol Hill have: guaranteed paid sick leave? The answer is yes,” Sanders, who has been outspoken about the rail contract in recent months, told reporters on Tuesday.

At least one other senator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), is on board with the sick leave provision, according to HuffPost. “I’m hopeful we can guarantee them a week of sick days and I’m working with Sen. Sanders and others to get that done,” she said.

The vote was scheduled after President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a bill to avoid a strike, angering rail unions, workers and labor advocates. In calling to do so, Biden essentially told Congress to override the will of the thousands of union members who voted against ratifying the contract, who have said that the agreement is insufficient to address workers’ concerns over punishingly strict attendance policies and their current complete lack of sick days.

House progressives have also called for the inclusion of the sick leave provision.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) said that he can’t “in good conscience” vote for the bill in its current form. “We fumbled this in Build Back Better, we can’t do that again,” he tweeted.

“Rail workers can’t schedule getting the flu on a Tuesday 30 days in advance,” Bowman added, referring to a provision in the current contract that would require workers to schedule medical appointments 30 days in advance. “What we’re seeing is an inhumane deal being pushed onto workers even after a majority voted it down. If we are a pro-labor party, we must stand up for them. They need paid sick leave now.”

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) also vowed to vote against a bill that excluded the demand, saying, “Every worker deserves paid sick leave. I will not support a deal that does not provide our rail workers with the paid sick leave they need and deserve.”

“Railroad workers grind themselves to the bone for this country as their labor produces billions for Wall Street,” added Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). “They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them. If Congress intervenes, it should be to have workers’ backs and secure their demands in legislation.”

It’s unlikely that House leadership will allow the paid leave provision to be included in the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to bring the agreement to a vote as is, without sick leave. House progressives’ votes are also unlikely to be enough to tank the bill unless it faces widespread Republican opposition or if more Democrats speak up on behalf of the workers opposed to the current contract.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, appear to be opposed to the inclusion of the sick leave provision — as are a number of conservative and corporate groups and, of course, wealthy railroad owners, whose greed is the reason for the current showdown, labor advocates say.

Four of the 12 rail unions involved in the contract negotiations have voted down the agreement in recent weeks, representing over half of the 115,000 affected rail workers. The unions issued furious statements following Biden’s statement, lambasting the president for siding with rail industry owners over workers.

“[P]assing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues,” the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, one of the unions that voted against the contract, wrote in a statement. “Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise railroad workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”

Railroad Workers United, an inter-union coalition of rail workers, condemned Biden and Democrats who are supporting the current agreement while praising progressives who are standing up for the sick leave provision.

“The ‘most labor-friendly President in history has proven that he and the Democratic Party are not the friends of labor they have touted themselves to be. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have for decades been in bed with corporate America and have allowed them to continue chipping away at the American middle class and organized labor,” said Railroad Workers United co-chair Gabe Christenson.

“Except for a handful of progressives — notably Bernie Sanders — who have shown their willingness to fight for us, the entire political machine must be changed,” Christenson continued.