The Senate on Thursday voted to avert a shutdown of the U.S. rail system and impose a labor agreement on workers, though the divided chamber shot down an attempt to add a paid sick leave provision championed by unions.
Lawmakers voted 80-15 to force four unions to accept their previously rejected labor agreements with railroads. The agreements, based on recommendations from a Biden administration presidential emergency board, include a 24% wage increase and an additional paid personal day.
The vote prevents a rail strike or lockout that was estimated to cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer implored lawmakers to act as soon as possible, noting “the consequences of inaction would be severe.”
“Unsafe drinking water, unusable gasoline, shuttered power plants and equipment shut down to passenger rail across the country — those are just a few of the myriad of serious problems that would occur,” he said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Ultimately, the Senate was unable to secure the 60 votes needed to approve a supplemental measure that would have granted workers seven days paid sick leave. Workers say they receive partial pay after four days of illness, and punitive carrier attendance policies make it difficult to use unpaid or vacation time when they get sick.
Lawmakers also rejected another amendment that would have delayed a strike by extending the cooling off period between railroads and workers another 60 days to allow negotiations to continue.
President Joe Biden had urged Congress on Monday to intervene in negotiations, saying he had been advised that there was no path forward at the bargaining table.
Shippers breathed a sigh of the relief at the vote. Businesses were bracing for disruptions as soon as this weekend, and the prospect of a strike or lockout had pushed many to divert cargo elsewhere.
“Today, Senate leaders recognized just how vital our nation’s rail system is and voted to keep the country’s supply chains and our economy moving,” Sarah Gilmore, director of government affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said in a statement. “American consumers can rest assured they will have an exceptional shopping experience this holiday season with the threat of a rail strike averted.”
Biden said in a statement Thursday he will sign the legislation as soon as it reaches his desk. The president noted that while he was reluctant to override the union ratification process, "the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country."
"Working together, we have spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities," he said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from President Joe Biden.