President Biden on Thursday praised Congress for passing legislation that will avert a rail strike, implementing a labor agreement between freight rail carriers and unionized workers.
“Congress’ decisive action ensures that we will avoid the impending, devastating economic consequences for workers, families, and communities across the country,” Biden said in a statement. “I will sign the bill into law as soon as Congress sends it to my desk.”
Senators voted 80 to 15 on a House-passed bill, with some Democrats voting against the labor deal because it didn’t include the sick leave provision.
The president said he shares in the reluctance by unions and some Democrats to override the union ratification process, but reiterated that the impacts of a rail strike on the U.S. economy would be too severe.
He said that by passing the bill, lawmakers “spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities.”
A tentative Biden-backed agreement was approved by labor and management negotiators in September, but not every rail union has signed on.
The deal provides rail workers with 24 percent raises over five years and makes it easier for workers to miss time for medical appointments, but a sticking point was that the deal did not include more paid sick leave.
Biden has said he supports increasing paid leave accommodations for rail workers, but that it should be addressed separately from the bill. Earlier on Thursday, the Senate rejected a proposal to provide rail workers the additional sick leave their unions had sought. The proposal to add sick leave had passed the House narrowly on Wednesday.
“I have long been a supporter of paid sick leave for workers in all industries — not just the rail industry — and my fight for that critical benefit continues,” he said in the statement.
Biden had warned about the economic consequences of a rail strike, including that union workers would be out of work, communities would struggle to get chemicals that ensure clean drinking water and farmers and ranchers would be unable to feed their livestock.
The president on Monday had called on Congress to immediately adopt the tentative agreement, without any modifications. The deadline to avoid a strike is Dec. 9.
Since the deal was stuck in September, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had been in regular touch with labor leaders and management but saw no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table. The secretaries recommended that the administration seek congressional action to solve the issue.
Walsh and Buttigieg went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to brief Democrats before the bill was passed.