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House Backs Rail Contract With 7 Days Paid Sick Leave in Concession to Workers

Sen. Bernie Sanders is vowing to ensure that the sick leave proposal is voted on in the Senate.

Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

In a concession for workers, the House passed a resolution on Wednesday to force the adoption of a railroad labor contract with, crucially, the inclusion of a hard-fought amendment for seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers.

The resolution advanced with a 290 to 137 vote, while the amendment providing sick leave passed largely on party lines, with only three Republicans joining all Democrats in voting to grant rail workers sick days.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) had originally planned to bring the resolution, sans sick leave, to a vote as is, but the Congressional Progressive Caucus said that it was able to negotiate a deal with House leadership on Tuesday night to have the sick leave proposal included. The seven days of sick leave in the proposal is less than the 15 days that workers had sought, but is still an improvement over current conditions.

Representatives Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who submitted the amendment, celebrated its passage.

“Railroad corporations are raking in record profits — over $20 billion last year alone,” Omar said in a statement following the vote. “Meanwhile, their workers do not even have the basic protections of a single day of paid or unpaid sick time. In the face of these record profits, railroad workers have made a simple, dignified request for the basic protections of paid leave. And we in Congress need to listen to them.”

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has pledged to block consideration of the resolution without first holding a roll call vote on the paid sick leave proposal, calling the current policy of rail workers being given zero paid sick days “unacceptable.”

“The bottom line is that the American people and workers throughout the country are profoundly disgusted by the kind of corporate greed that we are seeing,” Sanders said in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday. “In the last three quarters of this year alone, the railroad industry made $21 billion in profits, provided $25 billion in stock buybacks and dividends…. Meanwhile, for workers on the railroads, they have zero, underlined, zero guaranteed sick leave.”

Sanders said there is a good chance that the sick leave proposal could pass with support from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Pointing out that Republicans claim to support the working class — however false those claims may prove in practice — he said, “Put up or shut up. If you can’t vote for this to give workers today, who really have hard jobs, dangerous jobs — if you can’t guarantee them paid sick leave, don’t tell anybody that you stand with working families.”

Paid sick leave became a major sticking point for Democrats and progressives after President Joe Biden urged Congress on Monday to force the adoption of the agreement, negotiated with Biden administration representatives in September, circumventing unions to prevent workers from striking in December. Several major unions involved in the contract negotiations — representing over half of the rail workers affected — had voted down that agreement.

Currently, strict attendance policies cause major fatigue and health issues for many rail workers. The contract offer had included some provisions for workers, including pay raises and three days off each year for routine health appointments, if scheduled 30 days in advance. This was insufficient to assuage many workers’ concerns, and still didn’t address the issue of paid sick leave that workers have been fighting for.

Unions and union workers had expressed frustration over Biden’s announcement, saying that it went against his supposed pro-union stances.

The AFL-CIO called on Congress to pass the sick leave provision in a statement on Wednesday. “To be clear, rail companies could do the right thing today and grant workers paid sick leave,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said. “But they’ve refused, putting profits over people. That’s how we got here.”

Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWED), one of the unions that voted against the agreement, called on workers and supporters to contact their congressional representatives to tell them to support the proposal after putting out a scathing statement about the original resolution on Tuesday, saying that, as negotiated, it would only make the situation worse for workers.

“[T]he big corporations, the monopolies that control America — the robber baron railroads — have again profiteered from the problem they created and shifted the consequences of it onto the Railroad Workers, the customers, and the general public,” the union said. “This cannot continue. There must be a change.”