Freight rail strike averted, after frenzied negotiations

The Senate Thursday voted to head off a freight rail strike at the 11th hour, but failed to add seven paid days of sick leave workers wanted.

The Senate voted Thursday to avert a freight rail strike just days before crucial drinking water, food and energy shipments were set to be sidelined, after hurried talks in both chambers of Congress and a visit to the Senate from two of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries.

Ultimately the Senate voted 80-15, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting present, on a bill that would impose the terms of a contract negotiated among freight railroads and most of their unions in September. Four out of the 12 unions involved had been holding out for additional paid sick days, making a strike possible as soon as Dec. 9.

“I’m very glad that the two sides got together to avoid a shutdown which would be devastating for the American people, the American economy and so many workers across the country,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters, shortly after a luncheon meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh concluded.

On Monday, Biden endorsed moving a bill that would impose the contract minus the sick days, in what he said was the interests of avoiding a rail shutdown that could have sidelined crucial drinking water, food and energy supplies starting over the weekend.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for organized labor, a core Democratic constituency — but one that Biden insisted was necessary, considering that negotiations among the parties had ground to a standstill. Biden is expected to sign the bill quickly.

Two additional Senate votes — one to add seven paid sick days, and one to extend the period during which the unions can’t strike, by another 60 days — both failed, 52-43 and 25-70 respectively. Though the sick leave bill garnered more yes votes than no votes (including six from Republicans), it still failed because it did not achieve the 60-vote threshold.