The Senate voted Thursday to avert a costly nationwide rail strike next week that lawmakers in both parties worried would shut down much of the economy and further add to inflation.
Senators voted 80 to 15 for a House-passed bill to implement the labor agreement between freight rail carriers and unionized workers brokered by the Biden administration.
But senators rejected a proposal to add seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement, which four rail unions demanded.
By intervening, Congress will avert the threat of a national rail shutdown that would have ravaged supply chains and brought significant portions of the economy to a halt in the middle of the holidays.
Roughly one-third of U.S. cargo is transported by rail and truckers would not be able to take on more capacity.
Business groups, which aggressively lobbied lawmakers to avert the strike this week, breathed a sigh of relief following the vote. They had warned that a walkout would stall deliveries and worsen inflation.
“American consumers can rest assured they will have an exceptional shopping experience this holiday season with the threat of a rail strike averted,” Sarah Gilmore, director of government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said in a statement.
But the outcome will likely enrage rail workers who argued that railroad executives were refusing to meet their demands because they knew Congress would step in and block a strike.
The proposal to add sick leave to the tentative labor deal, which passed the House narrowly on Wednesday, failed on the Senate floor.
The sick-leave measure needed at least 60 votes to pass and fell short, 52 to 43.
Six Republicans voted for it: Sens. Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against extra sick leave.
Several Democrats voted against the labor deal because it didn’t include the sick leave provision.
“My point here is that forcing people to have no sick time and you fire them if they don’t show up is like an 18th century French coal mine. It’s an absolutely outrageous way to treat your workers,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who voted no on forcing workers to accept the labor deal negotiated over the summer.
In addition to Merkley, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also voted no.
The tentative agreement, negotiated with the help of Biden administration officials in September to avert an initial strike threat, provides rail workers with 24 percent raises over five years and makes it easier for workers to miss time for medical appointments.
However, the deal doesn’t provide any paid sick days — just one additional personal day — sparking outrage from some rail workers and union leaders.
Four of the 12 rail unions failed to ratify contracts and didn’t appear close to reaching an agreement with railroads, which refused to budge over the issue of paid sick leave.
The Senate also rejected a proposal offered by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) to send rail companies and unions back to the bargaining table for another 60 days to work out a new agreement. That failed by a vote of 25 to 70.
The votes capped four days of frenzied discussions in the Senate after Biden urged Congress on Monday to avoid a “potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”
The potential crisis flared up on Nov. 21 when train and engine workers at the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation union (SMART-TD) voted down the Biden-negotiated deal.
The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which together represent 17,000 workers, voted against a tentative deal last month.
Biden called the top four congressional leaders to the White House Tuesday morning to urge them to pass legislation implementing a labor deal by the end of the week.
All 115,000 rail workers would have gone on strike if just one union did not ratify a deal by the Dec. 9 deadline. This week’s legislation will force the remaining four unions to accept the tentative deal.
Though the strike deadline wasn’t until the end of next week, the White House worried the prospect of a labor freeze would begin to slow down supply chains early next week, adding more inflationary pressure to the economy.
“Even though the actual shutdown is the 8th, you need to act a few days before that because a lot of the suppliers stop sending their stuff on the trains if they think there’s a possible shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the White House meeting.
Schumer cited chlorine needed to sanitized water supplies in many towns and cities as a critical product that would be held up within days of a potential rail shutdown.
Business groups and the Biden administration warned lawmakers not to drag out negotiations, noting that railroads would begin to wind down services this weekend. That would lead to delayed shipments and commuter rail cancellations.
Biden ramped up pressure on Congress throughout the week.
“Let me say that again: without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin,” the president said in a statement Wednesday.
Updated at 5:09 p.m.