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Senate votes to impose Biden rail deal on unions, avoiding Dec. 9 strike

WASHINGTON – The Senate overwhelmingly voted Thursday to prevent a national rail strike from kicking off next week by imposing a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the Biden White House.

The Senate voted 81-15 to enshrine the terms of a tentative deal unveiled in September that would give 115,000 members of 12 rail unions 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020. It also would require that workers pay a larger share of their health insurance costs, but their premiums would be capped at 15% of the total cost of the plan.

The House passed the same bill a day earlier and President Biden is expected to sign it as soon as Friday.

The bill’s passage blocks rail unions from carrying out a planned Dec. 9 strike that would have cost the US to lose an estimated $2 billion a day in economic activity and further jammed supply chains during the holiday season.

Four unions voted to oppose the deal because it did not include paid sick leave.

The House on Wednesday passed a provision that would have given union workers seven days paid sick leave in the deal with a 221-207 vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put forward the same resolution in the Senate Thursday, but it could only muster 52 votes, falling short of the required 60.

Rail companies have said offering more sick days would require them to hire more people. Sanders alleged they could afford to do so because business has “never been better” for the industry that whose profits he said are “up by over $21 billion.”

“One of the CEOs in the rail industry makes $20 million a year; another guy makes $14 million a year. They are doing phenomenally well,” he said. “But … over the last six years, they have cut back on their workforce by 30%, which means that workers in the rail industry are asked to do more with less support.”

The Senate also voted 69-26 against a resolution imposing a 60-day cooling-off period that was put forward by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

Congress has the power to keep trains running under the federal Railway Labor Act of 1926, but has not done so in three decades.