After four railway unions rejected a deal to settle a longstanding labor disagreement, President Joe Biden signed a bill Friday forcing through the agreement under the provision of a 1920s law. The initial deal, negotiated by the Biden administration, appeared to head off the threat of a rail strike when it was announced in September. But workers had not yet seen the details—and many were unimpressed when they did. The central issue is paid time off. Rail workers currently receive no paid sick leave; instead, they must use vacation days, which must be scheduled far in advance. If they do take unscheduled days off, they are penalized under rigid attendance policies. During negotiations, the rail companies made concessions on raises, bonuses, and health-care costs, but they refused to waver on sick leave because their business models depend on rigid scheduling to decrease overhead and maximize profits.
Last Wednesday, the House responded to calls from the administration for action by passing two connected bills: one that would impose the terms of the rejected deal on workers and a second that would amend the deal to grant rail workers seven days of sick leave. The latter bill came to the floor in a procedure called “enrollment correction” thanks to pressure from progressives, in a strategy backed by the unions. But this second bill, “correcting” the first, was never likely to garner the sixty votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. In the end, fifty-two senators supported it, with six Republicans joining forty-six Democrats. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to vote no (three others were absent). Ted Cruz, among the Republicans to vote yes, claimed workers’ demands were “reasonable” and even fist-bumped Bernie Sanders on the Senate floor. Marco Rubio made a free-market argument for his own yes vote, claiming the issue was “best left to the private sector” and that, if anything, Congress “should have worked to meet the demands of the workers instead of appeasing labor leaders and companies.”
Meanwhile, the first bill passed the Senate by an overwhelming eighty-to-fifteen margin, imposing the original deal without any further concessions to workers. Biden, who has positioned himself as a “a proud, pro-labor President,” expressed regret at overriding union members’ vote against the deal, but felt he was left with little choice. “A rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement to Congress. “Many U.S. industries would shut down [and] as many as 765,000 Americans—many union workers themselves—could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone.” Biden rejected any proposed modification of the deal, arguing that “any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides.” When asked if the administration pushed senators to support the bill for additional leave for rail workers, Joe Manchin said, “No, it was very clear. What we have is the deal that was negotiated. It’s a fair deal.”