House Passes Bill to Avert a Rail Strike, Moving to Impose a Labor Agreement

The House voted to force rail companies and workers to accept a pending agreement and to add seven days of paid leave, a key demand of the employees. But it met with a rocky reception in the Senate.

Demonstrators holding pro-union signs with the Capitol dome in the background.

Wednesday’s action by the House was the first time since the 1990s that Congress had used its power under the Railway Labor Act to intervene in a national rail labor dispute.

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday resoundingly approved legislation that would avert a nationwide rail strike by imposing a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers, as lawmakers rushed to shield the economy from the threat of a holiday-season work stoppage that would disrupt shipping across the country.

But the bill faced a rocky path in the Senate, where Republicans were resisting the idea of injecting the government into a contract negotiation and leaders in both parties were scrounging for the votes they would need to get it to President Biden’s desk.

Acting quickly the day after Mr. Biden made a personal appeal at the White House, a bipartisan coalition in the House voted 290 to 137 to approve a measure that would force the rail companies and employees to abide by a tentative agreement that the Biden administration had helped broker earlier this year, which increased pay and set more flexible schedules for workers.

“This overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “The Senate must now act urgently.”

With liberal Democrats threatening to withhold their votes unless the legislation granted additional paid leave, a key demand of workers, the House also approved a separate measure to add seven days of compensated sick time to the compact. That measure passed largely on party lines, 221 to 207, with all but three Republicans opposed.

Multiple unions have balked at the tentative agreement because of the paucity of paid family or medical leave; it includes one additional compensated day of personal leave. With passage of the bill, the House took the first step to compel all 12 unions to accept the deal anyway.

It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress had used its power under the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, to intervene in a national rail labor dispute. Leaders in both parties said they were reluctant to do so, and some lawmakers — particularly progressives — were deeply frustrated about being called upon to override the will of rail workers pressing for basic workplace rights.

Understand the Railroad Labor Talks

Averting a shutdown. Congressional leaders vowed to prevent a nationwide rail strike, agreeing with President Biden that it could freeze a critical piece of the economy and potentially fuel further inflation in the United States. Here is what to know:

Why are rail workers threatening to strike? Unions representing tens of thousands of workers said they planned to strike if a labor agreement with the freight rail companies employing them wasn’t reached. The workers are mostly concerned with their grueling, unpredictable schedules that make it difficult to attend medical visits or family events.

Wasn’t there an agreement reached in September? The White House helped broker a tentative deal in September, but the proposal failed to win the approval of the workers at all of the unions involved. Many workers said that that deal did not address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a business model that seeks to minimize labor costs and results in chronic understaffing.

What was in that proposal? Under that agreement, new contracts would include a 24 percent increase in wages over five years and a payout of $11,000 upon ratification. Workers would also receive an additional paid day off as well as the ability to attend medical appointments without penalty.

What’s at stake for the economy? Rail freight is the centerpiece of the global supply chain. A strike would slow down the circulation of key goods within the United States and with overseas trading partners. A disruption to the rail transport of crude oil, gasoline and diesel, meanwhile, could push up gas prices and drive further inflation.

“At the end of the day, we really believe that our work is to have the right to paid leave, and so we’re going to stand with our workers and with our unions,” said Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, who was among the lawmakers who lobbied for a vote to add the additional time off.

In the Senate, leaders had pledged to move quickly on the legislation, to avoid a disruption to the nation’s rail service in the coming days. But on Wednesday, it was unclear how rapidly they could reach a deal to do so.

Several Republicans questioned why the Biden administration had not pushed to give the unions and companies more time — past the current Dec. 9 deadline — to negotiate a deal, rather than ask Congress to impose the agreement.

Congress is “supposed to be the very last resort, but I don’t know that there’s been an extreme effort by the administration to get this worked out,” said Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa. “President Biden needs to be out there taking the lead on this.”

But the threat of economic damage, as well as Mr. Biden’s personal appeal for Congress to act, appeared to have provided the momentum necessary to propel the measure with unusual speed through the House on Wednesday.

“We are here to safeguard the financial security of America’s families, to protect American economy as it continues to recover and avert a devastating, nationwide rail shutdown,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who defended the Biden administration’s record championing unions and workers in a speech on the House floor.

“A nationwide rail shutdown would be catastrophic — a shutdown would grind our economy to a halt, and every family would feel the strain,” she added, pointing to the possibility of lost jobs and the inability to easily transport a variety of goods across the country. “Time is of the essence — we must act now.”

It was unclear whether the paid leave proposal had the bipartisan support necessary to pass the Senate, but by passing it, the House left open the possibility that it could ultimately be added before the tentative agreement was cleared for Mr. Biden’s signature.

At least one Senate Republican, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, said he planned to back the paid leave proposal, though he would oppose the agreement itself. Several Senate Democrats were pushing for a vote on the proposal, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent.

Like most measures, the legislation to avert a rail strike would need the support of at least 10 Republicans in the 50-50 Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold to move forward.

Mr. Biden planned to dispatch members of his cabinet to Capitol Hill on Thursday to defend the bill and lobby for quick action. Martin J. Walsh, the labor secretary, and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, were set to join Senate Democrats for a closed-door lunch, according to a leadership aide.

Mr. Biden has said that the decision to ask Congress to intervene was “not an easy call,” given that he was one of six senators to oppose legislation that ended a 1992 rail strike and argued against interference in labor disputes. Some union members have said they felt betrayed by his decision, while Mr. Biden has cited the threat of economic harm as a driving factor behind his decision.

“To be clear, it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining, and the administration is reluctant to override union ratification procedures and the views of those union members who voted against the agreement,” Mr. Biden’s budget office said in an official White House statement of support for the bill. “But in this case — where the societal and economic impacts of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — Congress must use its powers to resolve this impasse.”

Some Republicans charged that the vote was a direct result of the administration’s failure to act, mocking the contrast between Mr. Biden’s pledge to serve as the country’s most pro-union president and his decision to ask Congress to intervene.

“It never should have come to this,” said Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But he called on his colleagues to support the legislation, arguing that inaction would “absolutely cripple the economy.”

In the end, 79 Republicans backed the measure, joining all but eight Democrats. Notably, several top Republicans — including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader who is toiling to shore up enough support to be elected speaker in January — opposed it along with 128 of his colleagues.

The last-minute decision to take a separate vote on the paid leave proposal further rankled House Republicans, who called it a “poison pill” that would jeopardize the broader agreement. Just three Republicans — Representatives John Katko of New York, Don Bacon of Nebraska and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — joined every Democrat in supporting that measure.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers to pass the measure to impose the tentative agreement negotiated in September, calling it “a necessary resolution to avert a catastrophic labor strike that would shut down rail service in America.” But it rejected the bid to add seven paid days of leave as “an unworkable, one-sided modification,” a criticism echoed by Republicans on the House floor.

“The terms of the tentative agreement found in this resolution are more than fair for railroad workers,” Mr. Graves said. He added, “It’s very sad that the majority decided to change this at the last minute.”

But for several liberal Democrats, the paid leave measure was a necessary step to offset the discomfort of voting on an agreement that several unions had refused to ratify. Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, called it an example of “progressive solidarity and organizing” in Congress.

“I would not be able to do my job without paid sick time; every American worker deserves the same allowance,” said Representative Donald M. Payne Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, noting that he has to attend regular dialysis treatment for Type 2 diabetes. “Without paid sick time, railroad workers are forced to make a choice between their health, or the health of their families, and their paychecks.”

A correction was made on Nov. 30, 2022
An earlier version of this article misstated the origin of Congress’s power to intervene in rail labor disputes. It stems from its authority to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution, not the Railway Labor Act.