The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday on an agreement between rail companies and workers to head off a strike that could have major economic consequences across the nation, including Alaska, due to the 49th state’s dependency on the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma for freight, much of which comes by rail.
Lawmakers voted 290 to 137 in favor of the deal between unions and rail companies that includes $5,000 pay increases. Now, the Senate will take up the issue.
Congresswoman Mary Peltola of Alaska voted against the agreement because she wanted more sick days for union rail workers. The vast majority of Democrats voted for the agreement, along with 79 Republicans. Eight Democrats voted with 129 Republicans against the agreement, but in the case of Peltola, it was because the deal wasn’t good enough for rail workers. Rail workers need more sick leave days, she said.
In a separate vote, House Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to increase the number of sick days for employees to seven.
The deal appearing before Congress came in response to a threatened Dec. 9 strike, which could cripple the already struggling economy.
“I’m grateful to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and bipartisan House members for acting to prevent a rail shutdown, making clear it would devastate our economy and families everywhere,” said President Joe Biden. “But without more action, supply chain disruptions will begin. The Senate must urgently send a bill to my desk.”
In spite of his appeal to the Senate, some lawmakers in the upper body don’t like the precedent that such an action sets, having government inserting itself into labor contract negotiations.
The Biden Administration had negotiated a tentative agreement with the unions in September that included $5,000 bonuses for workers. But four of the 12 unions rejected the deal and put the strike back on the calendar if no agreement is reached by Dec. 9. Now, Biden wants Congress to ratify his September agreement with no amendments to avoid a strike.
The Biden deal includes an historic 24% pay raise for rail workers. It provides improved health care benefits. And it provides the ability of operating craft workers to take unscheduled leave for medical needs, Biden said. That was not good enough for Alaska Congresswoman Peltola.
Alaska Railroad workers are unionized but not a part of the agreement being haggled over.
The Association of American Railroads reports that a strike would cost $2 billion per day and cause immediate harm to every sector of the economy served by rail. About 7,000 trains per day would be idled and that would “trigger retail product shortages, widespread manufacturing shutdowns, job losses and disruptions to hundreds of thousands of passenger rail customers.”
Rail accounts for about 28% of all freight in the United States.