US House Passes Legislation to Avert Rail Strike

US House Passes Legislation to Avert Rail Strike
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks to reporters in Washington on Nov. 29, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 30 passed legislation that would impose an agreement on rail unions that are poised to strike and also approved adding paid sick leave to the pact.

The House agreed, in a 290–137 vote, to impose the tentative agreement that multiple unions have rejected, despite opposition from some of the unions. In a separate 221–207 vote, the House added seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement.

Congress is allowed to take such action under the Railway Labor Act; it last took action to prevent a shutdown in 1994.

Seventy-nine Republicans joined all but eight Democrats in voting for the measure. Three Republicans joined all but one Democrat, who did not vote, in approving the paid sick leave provision.

Lawmakers who supported the measure said it was necessary to avert a nationwide strike.

“A railroad shutdown would cost the economy $2 billion and would wreak havoc on so many fundamental goods and services Americans rely on,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said on the House floor before the vote.

Railroad operators have estimated that lost economic output resulting from a shutdown could reach or even eclipse $2 billion a day. Business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, warned that some 6,300 carloads of food and farm products would likely be affected, along with critical products such as chlorine, which is used widely as a water purifier.

Critics said the legislation was rushed and that they were prevented from proposing amendments.

“It is refreshing we are looking at truly bipartisan legislation today. I’m glad to see we are taking up important issues that affect so many people across the country,” Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.) said. “However, because the rule provides no real opportunity to improve or amend the underlying bills and morphed into the Christmas tree of last-minute additions, I must oppose the rule. I ask members to do the same.”

Then-U.S. House candidate Michelle Fischbach campaigns in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. House candidate Michelle Fischbach campaigns in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Tentative Agreement Reached

A number of the nation’s railroads have been negotiating with 12 unions that represent about 115,000 workers. It was thought that a deal was reached before the midterm elections, but the biggest union rejected the proposal on Nov. 20, followed by several others. The proposal, which the House voted to impose, includes a 24 percent pay hike over five years.

A strike can begin on Dec. 9 unless a deal is reached and ratified. Days prior, if an agreement isn’t in place, the transportation of some products might be halted.

The House vote occurred several days after President Joe Biden called for Congress to intervene in the labor standoff.

The White House said it “strongly [supported]” passage of the legislation, saying a strike would “cripple the American economy.”

“To be clear, it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining, and the Administration is reluctant to override union ratification procedures and the views of those union members who voted against the agreement,” the White House said. “But in this case—where the societal and economic impacts of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families—Congress must use its powers to resolve this impasse.”


Democrats chose to split the votes into two, with one round on legislation that would impose a settlement and a second round on the addition of paid sick leave—a decision reached after conversations with members and an agreement “that a nationwide rail strike must be prevented,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said late on Nov. 29.

Multiple unions spoke out against Congress imposing an agreement, especially one that lacked paid sick leave.

“It both denies railroad workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike,” the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in a statement. “Additionally, passing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues. Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise railroad workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”

While workers largely opposed congressional intervention, some business groups supported Congress stepping in—with or without the paid sick leave.

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage—not our customers, not rail employees, and not the American economy,” Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation to implement the agreements already ratified by eight of the twelve unions.”

A freight rail car (C) passes near shipping containers in Wilmington, Calif., on Nov. 22, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A freight rail car (C) passes near shipping containers in Wilmington, Calif., on Nov. 22, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)


The measure now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

The upper chamber is split 50–50. At least 60 votes are required to advance the legislation. Several Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have indicated they will vote against the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed optimism this week after meeting with Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The congressional leaders “agreed we got to resolve this rail shutdown as quickly as possible and that we would work together on doing it,” Schumer said.

But McConnell offered little on the matter during a briefing, apart from saying the bill was expected to be brought up for a vote in the upper chamber by the end of the week.

“I think there are mixed views” among Republicans, he said. “I think some may be inclined to vote against it. Others are arguing that the economic price of doing that is too great.”