U.S. Senate votes to avoid a rail strike, defeats Sanders-led amendment requiring paid sick leave for workers

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Vermont Democratic Party gathering in Burlington on Election Day on Nov. 8. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The U.S. Senate on Thursday afternoon overwhelmingly voted to force a labor agreement between the railroad industry and rail workers, avoiding a worker strike that could have had disastrous implications for the economy and an already strained supply chain.

At the center of the contract dispute was the issue of paid sick leave. The rail workers’ union, flanked by allies such as Vermont’s own U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, fought to include seven days of paid sick time in the updated agreement. Industry leaders refused to budge.

The final labor agreement passed by a 80-15 vote on Thursday did not contain an amendment championed by Sanders, which would have included seven days of paid sick leave in the contract. At 52-43, the amendment won a majority of support, but not the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass. (The U.S. House passed both the labor agreement and the amendment Wednesday. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted yes on both measures.)

“This is not a radical idea. It's a very conservative idea,” Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a floor speech on Thursday, making a final plea to his colleagues for their support.

Sanders voted against the final labor agreement while Vermont’s senior U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, voted for it.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., was the only Democrat to vote against Sanders’ amendment. President Joe Biden and other Democrats bemoaned Republicans’ lack of support for the proposal, but the vast majority of senators across party lines voted in favor of the final agreement, saying that the economic stakes of a nationwide rail strike were too high.

Concerns over a strike were so high that even Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott — who often steers clear of Washington bickering — weighed in with a statement Wednesday, calling on Congress to reach an agreement quickly.

“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. “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.”   

At the White House on Thursday, Biden vowed to return to the issue of paid sick leave.

“I think we’re going to get it done, but not within this agreement,” he said at a joint press conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, according to NBC News. “We’re going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and we’re gonna go back and we’re gonna get paid leave not just for rail workers, but for all workers.”

In a floor speech before introducing his unsuccessful amendment, Sanders decried the zero-sick leave policy, saying, “Unbelievably, if a worker today in the railroad industry gets sick, that worker gets a mark for missing work and, in some cases, will be fired. Can you imagine that?”

The rail industry, he said, represents “the excesses of corporate greed” with “record-breaking profits.” But he said the issue runs deeper, pointing to historic wealth inequality.

“People in this country are increasingly disgusted with the kind of selfishness and corporate greed that we are seeing,” he said.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: smearhoff@vtdigger.org

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