Happening Now

Congress Forces Through Deal to Avert Rail Strike

December 2, 2022

President Biden signed legislation averting a rail strike today, preventing a catastrophic shutdown of freight, passenger, and commuter rail systems across the U.S.

President Biden signed legislation averting a rail strike today, preventing a catastrophic shutdown of freight, passenger, and commuter rail systems across the U.S.

The bill cleared the Senate by a bipartisan 80 - 15 vote, and the House by a bipartisan 290 - 137 vote. The legislation imposes a labor agreement collectively negotiated by the White House, labor union representatives, and railroad management. The deal will increase worker pay by 24 percent, provide back-pay bonuses, prevent an increase in health care premiums, and provide a single day of paid sick leave.

While there are clear wins for the unions, many workers were divided on whether to accept the deal. Eight of the 12 unions involved—representing 43,000 workers—voted to ratify the deal. However, the four unions that rejected the deal represent 54,500 workers. This picture is complicated by the fact that members within those 12 unions were split on whether to ratify. There is a sense among many union members that this deal doesn’t address the deteriorating working conditions that have driven many people out of the industry.

In the end, however, the threat of a strike—which would have dealt a $2 billion hit to the U.S. economy each and every day, halted all Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor, shut down a dozen commuter railroads, and halted the delivery of critical goods—was enough to convince Congress that intervention was necessary.

Rail Passengers remains concerned about so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which is what freight railroads call running longer trains more slowly using fewer humans. It has resulted in late Amtrak trains, unpredictable deliveries of goods and commodities, and an exhausted rail workforce. Amtrak passengers were the canaries in the coal mine for this issue, suffering millions of minutes of delays due to freight train interference. Now, freight rail labor and rail shippers are starting to realize that PSR is a bum deal for them.

President & CEO Jim Mathews issued the following statement yesterday on the passage of legislation out of the Senate:

"Our Association is pleased that the U.S. has avoided a shutdown of the rail network. This would have been devastating to millions of regular Americans who rely on trains to get to work, school, and home, as well as the millions more who would have been challenged to buy even everyday ordinary necessities. We thank President Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for working the issue with the principals of the railroads and organized labor to avert this catastrophe."

“However, Rail Passengers remains worried that this agreement fails to address the real root of these harsh working conditions: Precision Scheduled Railroading, combined with a harsh penalty system for taking legitimately needed days off. Congress can stop rail workers from striking, but they can’t stop rail workers from quitting. As long as Class I’s care more about stock buybacks than running a quality railroad, we’ll continue to face long delays — for Amtrak passengers and shippers — and deteriorating conditions across the U.S. rail network.”

"We hope these past few months have opened the eyes of ordinary Americans and elected policymakers alike to the problems flowing from poorly executed Precision Scheduled Railroading, and that we continue to work on fixing those root-cause issues."

President Biden defended his decision to urge Congress to pass legislation preventing a strike, saying it was necessary for Americans and the U.S. economy. He also vowed he’d deal with the larger issue of paid work leave.

“I made it really clear I’m gonna continue to fight for paid leave for not only rail workers, but for all American workers,” President Biden said during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “I think we’re gonna get it done, but not within this agreement. Within this agreement, we’re going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and I’m gonna go back and we’re gonna get paid leave not just for rail workers, but all workers.”

A separate provision backed by House Democrats that would’ve imposed seven days of sick leave passed the House along a party line vote. However, a companion amendment failed to clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, with only a few Senate Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues to vote ‘yea’. With Republicans taking over the House of Representatives in January, it’s unclear what the White House can achieve on this issue in a divided Congress.