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Senate to vote on bill to avoid rail strike

Bill that could avert rail strike in Senate

Washington — The Senate on Thursday is voting on legislation aimed at heading off a nationwide rail strike, following its House colleagues in stepping into a labor dispute between unions and railroads to avert a nationwide disruption of rail service.

The Senate will take up a measure that would impose a labor agreement brokered in September by the Biden administration that increases worker pay and provides one additional paid leave day. The upper chamber will also consider an amendment to add seven days of paid sick leave to the rail contract. The Senate voted down a GOP amendment on a 60-day cooling off period for union and rail negotiations. 

The Senate is expected to approve the bill adopting the rail agreement. 

The House passed both measures on Wednesday after President Biden asked Congress at the start of the week to intervene and approve legislation to adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators, which four of 12 rail unions rejected. While the bill that would impose the contract received broad support from Republicans and Democrats, the separate measure to provide additional sick leave was approved in a near party-line vote.

The Biden administration has been urging swift action by Congress, as workers threatened to strike if they failed to reach a labor agreement by Dec. 9. While some lawmakers, particularly Democrats who are typically pro-labor, have expressed hesitation about intervening, congressional leaders agreed on the need to avoid a rail strike that could deal a blow to the economy. 

Mr. Biden hosted the four House and Senate leaders at the White House on Tuesday, during which they discussed the role for Congress in preventing a rail shutdown.

"I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate," Mr. Biden said during a joint press conference Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron. "The only thing that was left out was whether there was paid leave."

The president added that the U.S. is a rare wealthy nation without guaranteed paid leave, and he wants to provide paid sick leave "not just for rail workers, but for all workers." 

The compromise agreement negotiated with the help of the Biden administration provides 24% pay increases and $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020, as well as the one additional day of paid leave. Under the proposal, workers' premiums would be capped at 15% of the cost of the insurance plan.

Railroad unions criticized Mr. Biden's call for Congress to wade into the contract dispute, claiming it undermines his repeated characterizations of himself as "the most pro-union president."

But the president said this week that not acting could have devastating impacts on the economy.

"It's going to immediately cost 750,000 jobs and cause a recession," Mr. Biden said Wednesday of a strike. "What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had, and they all signed on to it." 

The president stressed that he would continue to "fight for paid leave for not only rail workers, but for all American workers."

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