House passes bills to stop railroad strike, give rail workers more paid sick leave

Congress moved swiftly to head off a nationwide railroad strike. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to impose a compromise settlement on freight railroads and a dozen labor unions and approved more paid sick leave for rail workers. The measures now head to the Senate. Lisa Desjardins reports on some of the key issues in the dispute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look more closely now with a joint efforts by the president and Congress to avoid a major railroad strike.

    As we reported, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed key votes to avoid a strike that could start next week.

    Lisa Desjardins has our report, and then looks at some of the key issues in the dispute.

  • Speaker:

    The gentleman is recognized.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today in Congress, both parties fervently engaged in trying to avert a national economic blow, a rail strike in just over a week.

  • Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX):

    Every major industry, from automobiles to agriculture to energy, will be severely impacted if we fail to act.

  • Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ):

    It's come to us, as much as we might not like it, to have to negotiate this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The House took the first step today.

  • Speaker:

    The yeas are 290. The nays are 137.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Passing a bill to force a tentative labor deal into place. Back in September, skies looked clear, as the Biden administration helped broker that deal with union chiefs. That agreement would raise salaries by 24 percent over five years and give thousands of dollars in retroactive bonuses to rail workers.

    But it only grants them a single day of paid sick leave. And that issue was pivotal to rank-and-file members. As a result, four unions, including some of the largest, voted down the plan and are threatening to strike. A sense of impending crisis was one reason Mr. Biden called congressional leaders to the White House yesterday to get Congress to step in and force the deal.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: There's a lot to do, including resolving the train strike and the train — the — what we're doing now. And Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy's at risk.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But progressive Democrats led by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal in the House spent the last day pushing for a better deal.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA):

    CEOs have increased their pay, and yet they don't want to pay a penny, what amounts to about a penny a day for seven sick days for workers? So, I'm not happy about that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As a result, Congress is working on two tracks with two bills, one forcing the original deal into place and a second that would force railway companies to pay for seven days of leave.

  • Speaker:

    The yeas are 221 and the nays are 207.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The House passed that idea as well, but the Senate can take it or leave it and still avert a strike. Rail owners have pushed back, with the Association of American Railroads writing that there is a misperception that they have imposed draconian, abusive work rules, saying: "These are long-held practices that unions agreed to in the past."

    Nearly all agree a strike could derail the U.S. economy, freezing almost 30 percent of U.S. cargo shipments and costing some $2 billion a day. Action in the Senate is expected soon.

    For the record, we should note that one of the rail carriers involved in this dispute is BNSF, a "NewsHour" funder.

    For more on the railroad workers perspective, we turn to Tony Cardwell. He is the president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division.

    Tony, help us first understand what it is your workers do and why sick leave has been such an issue for them.

    Tony Cardwell, President, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees: Yes, absolutely, Lisa. Thanks for having me on, first of all.

    And I represent the hardest-working employees in the railroad, I believe. They're the ones that do the maintenance on the track and reconstruction of track tunnels, bridges, and they still do the hard, hard work of swinging the hammer, and they operate some of the heavy — heavy equipment and do much of the work that maintains the structures and the track structures throughout the United States.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, why is it that sick leave is such an issue that your workers are willing to strike over it and maybe freeze part of the U.S. economy potentially?

  • Tony Cardwell:

    Sure, this is — the sick leave issue was brought to light during the pandemic. Many of our employees fell ill to the COVID virus and/or were quarantined because they were exposed to it.

    And so, in doing so, they were not compensated. And so our members lost thousands of dollars of pay through the multiple quarantines and sickness throughout a year, and brought the sick leave issue to light that's been exasperated by the railroads' operation systems that they utilize called PSR.

    And PSR has cut our membership to the bare-bones. So there's fewer workers doing the same amount of work. And, in doing so, it has forced — the policies have forced the employees to be at work. They can no longer call in sick. They can be disciplined if they do so.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    PSR stands for precision scheduling, which gets to what you're talking about. It's the way the railroads have said they're becoming more efficient. But, essentially, it's fewer people working longer, longer trains, faster trains, that kind of thing.

    But I want to kind of get back to what's going on with the sick leave, which is a critical issue here, it seems like. Railway workers aren't unique in having a pool of time off, vacation time, for example. And some of the railway owners, including the American Association of Railways, argue that railway workers can use that time off that they already have if they are sick.

    And they say that unions agreed to that in the past. What's wrong with that?

  • TONY CARDWELL:

    Yes, the railroads have sent a lot of things this round of bargaining, and they're just simply untrue.

    Vacation has to be scheduled. An employee is required a scheduled vacation early in the year. He only has one week of vacation to break up in many cases throughout. And he's supposed to give adequate notice to break — even if he breaks up those days of vacation.

    The railroad carriers are just not being honest.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a look at a major debate, of course, in American life right now, labor and sort of workers rights and especially time off.

    But it's also look at the role of Congress. Congress is poised to act to force you into a deal. It may have only one day of sick leave. It may have seven days of sick leave. What do you think about Congress acting and forcing you into something now?

  • Tony Cardwell:

    So, we have been adamant we don't want a strike. Nobody does.

    But if Congress is going to intervene and stop our strike, we believe they should give us what we would otherwise get in that strike. So — but the point is this. If Congress didn't intervene, at $2 billion a day, the railroad would come running to the table to negotiate sick leave. But they're utilizing Congress as a backstop because they know, under the law, that they can intervene and stop our strike.

    So our point and our position with all congressional people has been, if you're going to stop our strike, give us what we would otherwise get if we did strike. And so, if you're going to intervene and stop us, then you should give us what we would otherwise get. And that's why the bills that are being passed today, we're happy to see that it passed the Congress, and we're hoping that we can get the Senate to support the bill as well, because we have a belief that our employees are entitled to this.

    And we need to make sure that we stand with workers, our public servants who would stand with the workers and not the duopoly corporations that are controlling — controlling our government right now. So, we have high hopes that we're going to get some Republicans to stand with us and get the bill through the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I can see here you're busy at work with negotiations with your phones, everything going off where you are.

    One more question in the brief minute or so that we have left. President Biden calls himself a pro-labor president, but he says your strike was just too risky for hundreds of thousands of workers, millions of people and the economy.

    How do you respond to him on that?

  • Tony Cardwell:

    Yes, we were definitely frustrating — frustrated with what he said.

    His statement was — implied that the railroad unions are the problem and that the — and kind of gave cover for the railroads, in my opinion. We wish that he would have made a different statement and come out in support of our sick leave. But he has positioned himself, I believe, to support the sick leave days.

    And I have — in his recent statement, he did say that he hopes that the bill passes the Senate. So he's changed his position on this. And I — and we appreciate that. We're still frustrated that he took the position that he did. But that we can't always agree, so say that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tony Cardwell, we know the clock is ticking, and we do appreciate your time.

  • Tony Cardwell:

    Thank you for your time, Lisa. I appreciate it.

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