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Senate Blocks Sick Leave Plan, Imposes Rail Contract in Plainly Anti-Union Move

The vote overrides the will of thousands of union workers who voted against the contract.

Railway workers walk through Union Station in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2022. President Joe Biden announced on September 15 that union leaders and rail companies had reached a "tentative" deal on a contract the previous weekend.

In a blatantly anti-union move, the Senate overwhelmingly voted on Thursday to override the will of thousands of union railroad workers and impose a labor contract that several unions have voted down in recent months.

The resolution, which passed the House on Wednesday, passed 80 to 15 in the Senate, far surpassing the 60 votes needed to move forward. An amendment deemed crucial by union members to add seven days of paid sick leave for workers — up from the zero sick days they currently receive — failed with 52 “yes” votes, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed to bypass a filibuster. The resolution now heads to the White House, where it will likely be signed by President Joe Biden.

Workers, already livid with Biden for urging Congress to take up the resolution on Monday night, expressed deep anger at the vote.

“We carry the country on our backs whether [Congress] realizes it or not,” Chicago rail mechanic Tom Modica told The Washington Post. “The fact that they are willing to force a contract down our throats to keep the railroads from shutting down means we’re important. But they get sick days, and we’re out here in the snow all day and we don’t. It’s pretty hypocritical.”

Workers say that they have been pushed to their physical and mental limits on the job, where they are expected to be on call 24/7 — sometimes working for weeks at a time — and face a strict points-based attendance policy that quickly leads to penalties for workers. While the sick leave amendment wouldn’t have addressed the entirety of workers’ concerns over extremely strict attendance rules, it would have brought the contract closer to what workers had asked for.

The vote is a thoroughly unsatisfying result for rail workers, who had pushed for up to 15 days of paid sick leave, better health benefits overall, and other attendance- and schedule-related demands. Their work conditions have already been in limbo for three years throughout contract negotiations.

The vote is also a sign of the willingness of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to trample on workers’ rights, and represents a stunning betrayal from Biden, who had pledged to be the “most pro-union president in American history” on the campaign trail.

Unions and labor advocates have expressed frustration over the resolution this week, which they say is a show of both major political parties’ alliances with capital and the rail industry. Even if the sick leave amendment had passed, the amendment didn’t go as far as some union members had pushed for — and workers say that the inclusion of paid sick leave would still not fully address the abusive conditions they face or undo the fact that many Democrats voted to override the will of the unions.

“[A]ny Congressional act which seeks to remove the basic right of Union workers to strike, that forces Union members to accept an agreement which was democratically rejected by members, and which fails to deliver a basic number of paid sick days, is unacceptable and anti-union to the core,” the Vermont AFL-CIO labor council wrote in a statement ahead of the Senate vote.

“Such an extreme act of Congress lays bare the reality that the capitalist ruling class, those that own and profit from our rail system, those that give hefty campaign contributions to Democrats AND Republicans are well represented by our two party system (and not Union workers),” the group wrote. It added that it gives “no credit” to the passage of the sick day amendment in the House “insofar as we have seen this show before with Build Back Better.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who introduced the sick leave amendment and voted “no” on the resolution to force the adoption of the contract, condemned the rail industry before the vote.

“If you wanna talk about the excesses of corporate greed then you’ve got to talk about the rail industry and what’s going on here right now,” he said. “Everybody understands that businesses sometimes have trouble…. That is not the case today with the rail industry. For the rail industry business has never been better — record breaking profits.”

While workers were granted meager concessions in the contract passed by Congress, including pay raises that, when averaged over time, don’t exceed inflation, he said that workers he’s talked to have overwhelmingly said that sick leave is a top priority for them. “The issue is paid sick leave,” Sanders said. “They are one of the few industries in America today that have zero sick paid leave. Unbelievably, if a worker today in the rail industry gets sick, that worker gets a mark for missing work and can, and in some cases will, be fired.”

In a statement after the vote, Sanders vowed to keep fighting for rail workers’ rights.

Senate Republicans had attempted to push back negotiations by 60 days, likely in an effort to delay until the GOP takes control of the House. That amendment, which failed 25 to 70, would have undermined a union strategy to have sympathetic Democrats help them hammer out a contract — a strategy that appears to have failed already — and faced vehement opposition from at least one union.

In a letter addressed to the Senate on Thursday, the president of the Brotherhood Of Maintenance Of Way Employes Division urged the Senate to vote against the extension of negotiations, saying that rail workers are already “at their breaking point” and that it would deny workers any increases in pay that may come from a new contract.

“Extension of the status quo period would also be based on a faulty premise — that with additional time for negotiations, the parties might come to an agreement,” the union wrote. “The unions and the railroads negotiated for almost three years and no progress was made.”

The resolution also passed in a bipartisan vote in the House this week, with a 290 to 137 vote for the resolution and a narrow 221 to 207 vote for the sick leave provision.

Labor advocates have criticized progressive lawmakers like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Jamaal Bowman (D-New York), though the progressives say that union leadership had urged them to vote to pass the resolution.

“We followed the strategy ask of our local unions, including rank and file we’ve picketed alongside before (like 202) as well as nationals that rejected ratification,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “In NY-14, locals’ ask was yes/yes so we could send paid sick [leave] to [the] Senate.”

Ocasio-Cortez claimed that it would have been futile for progressives to vote against the resolution because it had such strong bipartisan support — though voting against it, and still voting for the sick leave amendment, could have shown the lawmakers’ opposition to forcing the original contract on workers.

Some labor advocates, frustrated by Congress’s willingness to override the will of the workers while also not granting them basic rights, have discussed the idea of workers going on a “wildcat” strike.Though perhaps not improbable, such a move could be difficult and costly to pull off, as it would require defying the law and potentially union leadership.