The Senate took action to avert a rail strike Thursday, approving a bill that will impose a tentative labor agreement between railroads and labor unions. The Senate rejected a separate House measure that would require rail companies to provide workers seven days of paid sick leave per year, a major sticking point in the negotiations, which had been going on for more than a year.
The Senate passed the bill 80-15, following a favorable House vote of 290-137 Wednesday. President Biden is expected to sign it into law.
The move will keep freight rail lines running, avoiding a December 8 contract negotiation deadline that would have triggered a worker strike as early as December 9. The Biden administration had stepped in months ago, helping to broker the tentative agreement, which was reached in September. President Biden asked Congress to intervene last week, after a handful of labor unions had rejected the September deal, leaving the door open to a strike. The National Railway Act allows congress to intervene in labor disputes related to national railroads because of their potential effects on the economy.
The bill approved this week would make it illegal for workers to strike, but it will also impose the terms of the September deal, which includes pay increases, more flexibility for scheduling time off, and one paid personal day per year. It does not include the paid sick time workers had been asking for during the negotiations.
Industry leaders had been urging Congress to act on the issue as well, citing the potential crippling effects of a freight rail strike. Roughly 30% of the nation’s freight moves by rail, and a work stoppage could cause slowdowns in delivering food, fuel, and raw materials, as well as create ripple effects on the trucking industry. A strike would be especially damaging coming on top of current record-high inflation levels and rising fuel costs, and heading into the winter season.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) praised Congress’ action Thursday.
“The Senate acted with leadership and urgency with today’s vote to avert an economically devastating rail work stoppage,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a press release. “As we close out this long, challenging process, none of the parties achieved everything they advocated for. The product of these agreements is a compromise by nature, but the result is one of substantial gains for rail employees. More broadly, all rail stakeholders and the economy writ large now have certainty about the path forward.”
The National Retail Federation (NRF) weighed in on Thursday as well.
“The freight and commuter rail systems are essential partners to America’s retailers, moving goods throughout the country every day. A nationwide rail strike at this juncture would have had devastating consequences for our economy, and exacerbated inflation for American families,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a press release. “We are grateful for the swift action in Congress this week to implement the Tentative Agreement, and we look forward to President Biden’s immediate signature to safeguard smooth and stable rail operations.”
Victoria Kickham, an editor at large for Supply Chain Quarterly, started her career as a newspaper reporter in the Boston area before moving into B2B journalism. She has covered manufacturing, distribution and supply chain issues for a variety of publications in the industrial and electronics sectors, and now writes about everything from forklift batteries to omnichannel business trends for Supply Chain Quarterly's sister publication, DC Velocity.