Bernie Sanders-backed proposal for rail workers’ paid leave passes US House alongside labor deal

A railroad crossing sign on Taylor Street in Montpelier. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., rallied support Wednesday for a measure to provide paid sick days to rail workers as a vote to impose a tentative contract agreement cleared the U.S. House.

On Monday, President Joe Biden asked Congress to pass legislation to force rail workers’ unions to accept a tentative contract agreement reached in September. Four out of twelve unions have rejected that deal, raising the specter of a railroad strike that would have broad economic implications.

Sanders said on Twitter Tuesday evening that he would “block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America.” Senate rules require unanimous consent to expedite legislation, meaning Sanders or any other senator could hold up the bill once it reaches the chamber. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the House approved both the labor deal and the proposal to add seven paid sick days. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted yes on both measures.

Meanwhile, Sanders took to the Senate floor to blast the contract for failing to include paid sick leave, reiterating his demand that the Senate vote on adding sick days to the agreement. 

“Last September, President Biden and Labor Secretary (Marty) Walsh worked with the rail industry and union leaders to come up with a tentative agreement that was better than what the rail industry had been offering,” Sanders said. “But this agreement still does not require the industry to provide a single day of paid sick leave to workers. I thank President Biden and Secretary Walsh for their efforts, but Congress can and must do better.”

Sanders called the working conditions in the rail industry “absolutely unacceptable, and literally beyond belief.”

“If you get sick, if your child gets sick, if your spouse gets sick, and you need to take time off of work, not only will you not get paid, you actually will get reprimanded and could get fired,” Sanders said. “And that absurd, inhumane situation is precisely what is taking place today in the rail industry.”

The Vermont independent was joined in a statement by 11 Democratic senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., urging colleagues to support the paid leave measure.

“We commend the House for addressing this outrageous situation and guaranteeing paid sick days to every rail worker in America,” the statement read. “We urge the Senate to quickly take up the House-passed language for a roll call vote and urge our colleagues to support these workers. We look forward to bipartisan support.”

It is unclear whether the paid leave measure has enough support to clear the Senate. The House passed it 221-207, largely on party lines. The bill to impose the contract agreement as-is passed the House with broad bipartisan support, 290-137.

Biden had asked lawmakers Monday to advance the agreement “without any modifications or delay.” In a statement following the House vote Wednesday, Biden praised the House for passing the deal but did not acknowledge the paid leave proposal. Biden added that Congress must act this week, or else railroads may begin slowing the transport of certain essential items starting this weekend.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, also weighed in Wednesday on the need to avert a strike. 

“A rail shutdown would severely disrupt the flow of essential resources throughout America, including heating fuels, salt for winter ice control, and many other supplies critical to the health and safety of Vermonters and all Americans,” Scott said in a statement. “I fully support President Biden’s request that Congress put in place the Tentative Agreement, which was agreed to earlier this year by workers and operators. Americans cannot withstand further supply disruptions, or cost increases, and I strongly encourage Congress to move quickly and send a bill to the President’s desk."

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: mdougherty@vtdigger.org

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