Biden signs bill to avert rail shutdown

President Biden on Friday signed a bill that will avert a rail strike, just days before the deadline for an agreement to have been reached and amid fears that such a halt in railroad operations would cripple the U.S. economy.

The bill implements the labor agreement between freight rail carriers and unionized workers that Biden backed in September. His administration at the time was largely praised for helping broker a deal.

Senators voted 80-15 on Thursday on the House-passed bill, with several Democrats voting against the measure because it didn’t include a sick leave provision. Biden, who touts himself as the most pro-labor president in U.S. history, has said that he supports increasing paid leave accommodations for rail workers, but that it should be addressed separately from the bill.

“I know this was a tough vote for members of both parties. It was tough for me, but it was the right thing to do at the moment. To save jobs, to protect millions of working families from harm and disruption, and to keep supply chains stable around the holidays,” Biden said on Friday. 

He called the pay increase in the bill “historic,” but vowed to keep working for increased sick leave.  

“That fight isn’t over. I didn’t commit we would stop just because we couldn’t get it in this bill,” he said. 

Biden also said after the bill passed on Thursday that 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.

“Congress’s decisive action ensures that we will avoid the impending, devastating economic consequences for workers, families, and communities across the country,” he said in a statement, adding that lawmakers “spared this country a Christmas catastrophe in our grocery stores, in our workplaces, and in our communities.”

Biden on Monday called on Congress to immediately adopt the tentative agreement, without any modifications, with the Dec. 9 deadline to reach an agreement looming.

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 than one day of paid leave.

The Senate rejected a proposal to provide rail workers sick leave on Thursday, after the House narrowly passed the proposal on Wednesday.

Since the deal was struck 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.

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