Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. authored legislation that would force railroad workers back on the job without the seven sick days that unions are demanding after President Joe Biden asked lawmakers to pass a measure to force the rail companies and employees to abide by a tentative agreement that the administration helped broker earlier this year.
The House of Representatives approved Payne’s legislation, which still needs a vote in the Senate, is meant to prevent a freight shutdown that would cost the U.S. an estimated $2 billion per day.
Although the contract proposed with the White House’s intervention would increase pay and set more flexible schedules for workers, it failed to address a need that Biden himself declared a necessity.
The move was a serious setback for the workers that needed the right to strike in order to get railroad management to negotiate over their major demand to give workers sick days that are not in the current contracts.
Members of eight of the unions voted in favor of the proposed contracts but four rejected them. If even one of the dozen railroad unions were to go on strike, the other 11 would honor the picket lines, shutting down the railroads.
The railroads, many of which reported record profits last year, are enjoying even greater profits this year so they can afford to meet the union’s demands.
“It is unfortunate that Congress has to assume the role of mediator to avoid the widespread repercussions of a rail industry lockout or strike due to the inability of the railroads to negotiate with the nearly 115,000 dedicated, hard-working, and essential freight rail workers who’ve kept our economy alive,” said Payne, who is the sole sponsor of the legislation undercutting the rail workers’ right to strike.
“President Joe Biden and Congressman Donald Payne are siding with railroad barons to force a deal on workers that falls far short of their demand for sick days and it violates the President’s promise to make sure all Americans have reasonable paid sick leave,” said Lisa McCormick, a worker’s rights advocate. “If Congress has to assume the role of mediator, then why didn’t Congressman Payne put seven sick days into the mix?”
“President Biden promised to ‘ensure all workers have access to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, can earn 7 days of paid sick leave, and have fair and flexible schedules‘ but he is betraying that pledge from his 2020 campaign, by imposing this contract on rail workers,” said McCormick. “We are not building an economy that works for everybody when we force everyone in the bottom and the middle to cater to the richest people at the top. “
Every member of the New Jersey congressional delegation voted for the final measure except Rep. Donald Norcross, who supported the sick leave provision that two Republicans—Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Jeff VanDrew—voted against that measure.
Norcross voted against passage of the bill but he issued a statement saying: “Today, I voted to keep a critical piece of American infrastructure running: our railways. I voted to ensure that the workers who operate that strategic asset are treated fairly, earn a decent wage, and get paid sick leave. These hardworking men and women kept food on the table during the pandemic and kept goods on the shelves of small businesses. Our nation needs these workers to be healthy and strong so we can continue to grow our economy and deliver for the American people.”
“Every worker deserves paid sick leave and denying workers this essential right is unconscionable. I stand in solidarity with railroad workers in their fight for paid sick leave protections in their federal contract,” said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who put forward an amendment to provide sick leave with Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Chuy Garcia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
“No one should ever be forced to choose between their life and their livelihoods. Every person who calls this nation home should be able to take their kid to the doctor, rest when they have the flu, and get the preventative care they need,” said Pressley. “Providing our rail workers the paid sick leave they demand, deserve, and require is critical to a just recovery and to our work to affirm health care as the fundamental human right that it is.”
Multiple unions balked at the tentative agreement because of the shortage of paid family or medical leave; it includes one additional compensated day off for personal leave.
With the passage of the bill, the House took the first step to compel all 12 unions to accept that deal despite its lack of paid time for sickness or family emergencies.
It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress has used its power under the Railway Labor Act to intervene in a national rail labor dispute.
Leaders in both parties said they were reluctant to do so, and some Democrats — particularly progressives — were deeply frustrated about being called upon to override the will of rail workers pressing for basic workplace rights.
The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 290 to 137. It goes next to the Senate, where leaders in both parties have indicated they would move quickly to avoid disruption to the nation’s rail service.
Neither Republican commented about their votes to force rail workers back on the job without sick leave, but VanDrew issued a press release and appeared on Fox News to lambaste the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which defended the regime’s crackdown on political opponents by claiming “the price of freedom” in America was “1 million Covid deaths + 40,000 gun deaths per year + 107,622 Fentanyl deaths in 2021 alone.”
“China has a terrible record of human rights violations but forcing Americans to work without a fair contract after years of economic setbacks and policies that favor the powerful corporate elite is something that Jeff VanDrew can do something about,” said McCormick. “It is fine to complain about somebody else but Congressman VanDrew should stand up for democracy in America, defend US workers and enact legislation to ensure equality, prosperity, and justice here because that is his job.”