Labor activists grumble as rail paid leave appears likely to die in Senate

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Democrats are showing cracks of division over legislation to avoid a strike in the railroad industry, with most House Democrats voting Wednesday for President Biden’s tentative labor proposal while progressives in both chambers insist that more be done to provide rail workers with paid sick leave.

Biden, who campaigned as a pro-union president, proposed an agreement in the fall that would circumvent a strike among a significant portion of the nation’s transportation workforce. The railroads and some unions back the deal, but others balked, particularly over the lack of paid leave.

The measure, which passed in the House by a bipartisan vote, is meant to give something to both labor and management, while keeping jobs and the economy in decent shape heading into the holidays.

A second House bill also passed that would give time off to sick workers, but activists and liberals fear that measure will not survive GOP opposition in the Senate. Seventy-nine House Republicans voted for the tentative labor deal; only three backed the paid leave measure.

“Paid sick leave is a basic right and a necessity for a safe workplace,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “It is disgusting that railroad bosses who are racking up record profits are willing to put our economy at risk to deny workers the right to take a day off when they get sick.”

Some activists are concerned that Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill are not taking the medical concerns of thousands of workers’ seriously by pushing the original bill, which does not address compensation for sick time, while sending the second one separately to the Senate with an unlikely path to passing.

The frustration had been simmering as administration officials sought to work with members of Congress to get onboard with the president’s proposal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) eventually added a week of paid medical time off in the second bill after pressure mounted this week from activists and lawmakers including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Addressing economic realities the administration is navigating amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, which continues to cause supply chain issues and unstable gas prices, Biden said that a rail strike could “hurt millions of other working people and families,” a disaster scenario for officials trying to salvage a small bump of momentum following this month’s midterm elections.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, whom progressives consider an ally to unions, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack briefed lawmakers before the House votes.

While some corners of Washington cheered the move as another Biden-era show of bipartisanship, others on the left urged action on the paid sick leave portion in the Senate.

“Every member of the House who led the fight for rail workers to get paid leave in this resolution were Green New Deal supporters,” said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement. “That’s no surprise when the Green New Deal is built on expanding and strengthening unions.”

“Time and again, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is proving that when it comes to fighting for workers, they are the most pro-labor,” she told The Hill.

A handful of Democratic senators, including progressives Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), urged the upper chamber to go farther than what Biden put forth, heeding calls from advocates who want guarantees that rail workers can take time off to obtain medical care.

“As the need for worker protections and workplace flexibility have grown, railroad companies provide zero days of paid sick leave to their workers,” the senators wrote in a joint statement. “What this means is that if a rail worker comes down with COVID, the flu or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

The statement also included a critique of the industry’s corporate structure, one of activists’ biggest criticisms and arguments building up to a potential strike, which could occur as soon as next week without federal intervention.

“During the first three quarters of this year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $21.2 billion in profits. Guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers would only cost the industry $321 million a year — less than 2 percent of their total profits. Please do not tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to their workers,” it read.

While some advocates are preparing to dial up their pressure on the Senate, other union leaders say the White House and Biden in particular deserve more credit for navigating a tricky potential standoff at a politically perilous moment.

“Walsh and Biden absolutely got a pass on this, there’s no question about it,” said one former national union president, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive negotiating protocols. “To be objective, you haven’t seen any of the unions condemning Biden. That’s a big clue that this shouldn’t be the main scorecard.”

Some activists have privately grumbled about the unorganized nature of the buildup, lamenting that multiple unions have been involved and have struggled to form consensus around their strategy and how fully to support Biden’s plan without the sick leave component included in it. While many are now hoping that Senate progressives such as Sanders push for a vote on the paid medical leave part specifically, others say the process is turning out to be messy, and the White House is unlikely to face massive backlash.

“There’s collective bargaining division on top of division here,” said the former union president familiar with the process. “How do you put this back together again in the best of circumstances?”

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