Senate votes to avert rail shutdown
The Senate voted on Thursday to pass legislation to avert a nationwide strike by rail workers. After a succession of dire warnings and admonitions from industry experts and government leadership, the Senate voted 80 to 15 to send the Tentative Agreement to the president’s desk.
This comes after the Tentative Agreement was passed by the House on Wednesday, a deal that was itself brokered at the eleventh hour in mid-September when the possibility of a rail strike first reared its head. This agreement started 30-day cooling off period in which the members of the various unions representing rail workers would vote to ratify it. Four rail unions aligned and rejected the brokered deal, setting the stage for more than 115,000 workers to walk off the job on Dec. 9.
Congress responded quickly to a plea released by President Joe Biden on Nov. 28, calling on Congress to immediately pass legislation to adopt the Tentative Agreement “without any modifications or delay” to put the prospect of a strike to bed for good. Though the House of Representatives did get the ball rolling on Wednesday, after some agitating by the Democratic Party’s left-wing contingent an addendum was approved to add seven paid sick days for rail workers. North Dakota Congressman Kelly Armstrong was one of 207 Republicans to vote against the amended deal.
On Thursday morning Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-ND, penned a letter with Wyoming’s Sen. Cynthia Lummis, urging fellow senators to act swiftly in “supporting a clean implementation of the Tentative Agreements negotiated by the railroads and union leadership” in September. Cramer and Lummis pointed to the logistical ramifications the strike would cause as the reason they should not delay or overcomplicate the process, but that they cannot support an agreement that goes beyond what was negotiated by all parties.
“Congress’s role is not to help negotiate a rail settlement. It’s to approve one. You don’t need 535 arbiters negotiating the details of a labor agreement. At the end of the day, averting a shutdown of service and a full-blown economic crisis is critical,” Cramer said in a subsequent Twitter thread. “We’re in an economic crisis already. It will only worsen inflation. We are starting to see layoffs ahead of a recession. We have a broken supply chain. A work stoppage is not just putting more fuel on the fire, it’s an atomic explosion.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, provided a statement voicing concern over the impacts that rail service disruptions would cause, as well as concern for further amendments altering the original Tentative Agreement.
“Over the past several months, we have urged all parties to reach a good faith agreement and avert a rail strike, and today supported an amendment to provide them with an additional 60 days for negotiations, but it was blocked. Given the serious impacts that a disruption of rail service would have in North Dakota and across the nation, Congress was forced to act and approve the negotiated agreement to prevent a strike,” Hoeven said. “At the same time, Congress should not set the precedent of renegotiating specific aspects of labor agreements. We are already three years into this five-year labor agreement, so the workers and railroads can negotiate for any additional changes as part of their next labor agreement in two years.”
The strike would have caused losses of $2 billion a day and result in major distribution and supply chain issues in the interim. Federal safety measures require that railroad carriers prep seven days in advance of a strike, prioritizing the shipment of critical or sensitive materials such as chlorine, which is used for treating drinking water.