By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
Speaking on the U.S. Senate floor Thursday before votes on a trio of bills affecting the nation’s freight rail employees, Sen. Bernie Sanders said he had one “simple question” to ask: “Are any Republicans prepared to stand with rail workers who have zero paid sick days or are they instead going to back the outrageous greed of the rail industry?”
Sanders (I-Vt.) got his answer a short time later when 42 Republicans—and serial Democratic obstructionist Joe Manchin of West Virginia—voted down Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to include seven paid sick days in the tentative contract being foisted upon rail workers by Congress and the Biden administration under the terms of the Railway Labor Act of 1926 in order to avoid a strike that experts say could cost the nation’s economy $2 billion per day. The White House-brokered tentative contract was previously rejected by more than half of the nation’s unionized freight rail employees.
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Six Republican senators voted for the sick leave measure: Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
The senators also voted 80-15 to approve the contract supported by President Joe Biden—who once called himself the “most pro-labor president” in U.S. history—to force freight rail workers to remain on the job under pain of termination. A third measure, which would have extended the negotiation period by another 60 days, was rejected.
The Biden administration had urged senators to quickly legislation to thwart a potential strike by the nation’s freight rail employees, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg telling CNBC Thursday that “there is no substitute in the American transportation system for a functioning freight rail network,” and that a strike “wouldn’t just bring down our rail system, it would really shut down our economy.”
Responding to the Senate rejecting his House-approved resolution, Bowman tweeted that “Senate Republicans and Joe Manchin have yet AGAIN failed working Americans by voting down seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers.”
“I’m truly disgusted by their inability to care about workers,” he added. “They continue to put profits over people and it’s sickening.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on Twitter that “rail corporations have made money hand over fist, doubling profit margins and spending billions on stock buybacks. It’s shameful the vast majority of Republican senators blocked essential rail workers from receiving guaranteed paid sick leave.”
Jeff Kurtz, former head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, told Common Dreams that “it’s not only about paid time off.”
“I’m talking about time off, period,” he said. “We’ve had people who couldn’t take time off to be with sick kids, with dying parents, things like that.”
Kurtz asked Republican senators to “look at the irony of a situation” in which “the CEOs and the billionaires who run these rail outfits, who espouse the ideas of capitalism, and who would be apoplectic if the government came in and told them how to run the railroad” are “running to the government” for help.
“They’re actually asking the government to be the back-door HR department of the railroads,” he added.
Attorney and human rights advocate Steven Donziger called it “scandalous that the U.S. rail industry—which made profits of $196 billion over a decade—denies a paltry seven days of paid sick leave to its workers.”
“What’s really ‘sick’ is a society that requires a right so basic to be negotiated,” he added. “Let them strike.”
AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler saw a silver lining in the “significant wage increases and other important gains” in the tentative agreement.
However, Shuler said that “it’s deeply disappointing that 43 senators sided with multibillion-dollar rail corporations to block desperately needed paid sick days.”
“Rail workers keep America’s economy moving, yet rail companies treat workers as essential one minute and disposable the next,” she added. “The unwillingness of wealthy corporations to provide workers with basic dignity on the job got us to this point.”
Sanders vowed after Thursday’s votes that “this struggle is not over.”
“At a time of record-breaking profits for the rail industry, it is disgraceful that railroad workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave,” he said in a statement. “I will do everything I can to make sure that rail workers in America are treated with dignity and respect.”
Responding to the Senate votes, Biden said that “working together, we have spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities.”
“I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures,” he added. “But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country. And, the agreement will raise workers’ wages by 24%, increase health care benefits, and preserve two-person crews.”
Following the president’s remarks, Kurtz told Common Dreams that “Joe Biden is so far from pro-labor that he couldn’t see it with the James Webb Telescope.”