The Senate voted on Thursday to reject a proposal to give railway workers seven days of sick leave, a benefit that was left out of a labor deal between freight rail companies and unionized workers that was brokered by the Biden administration.
The proposal to give workers seven days of sick leave, which was championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other liberal lawmakers, failed to pick up enough Republican support to overcome a 60-vote threshold set for adopting the measure and fell in a 52-43 vote.
Six Republicans voted for the sick leave measure: Sens. Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against the bill.
It passed the House on Wednesday with a narrow bipartisan majority, 221 to 207, with only three Republicans voting for it.
After voting down the sick leave measure, the Senate voted to avert a costly nationwide rail strike next week. Senators voted 80 to 15 for a House-passed bill to implement the labor agreement between freight rail carriers and unionized workers brokered by the Biden administration.
The votes in the Senate and House now give Democrats the ability to blame Republicans for imposing a labor deal on rail workers that includes little flexibility for taking time off work due to illness or doctor visits.
“This is not a radical idea. It’s a very conservative idea. And it says if you work in the rail industry, you will get seven paid sick days. And I would hope that we would have strong support and the 60 votes that we need to pass this very, very important amendment that is wanted by every one of the rail unions,” Sanders said before the vote.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another leading liberal voice, predicted that nearly every single Democrat would vote for the additional sick leave and that it was up to Republicans whether it would be added to the labor deal.
“I think we’ll get all the Democrats. The question is whether any Republicans will join us,” she said.
“The right solution is that people don’t have to come to work to try to operate trains after they’ve had heart attacks and broken legs. But right now where we are is caught between shutting down the economy and getting enough Republicans to join us in making sure enough Republicans have access to sick leave,” she added.
Warren said there was “frustration” expressed at the Senate Democratic lunch “with this multibillion-dollar industry that has made money hand over fist and continues to treat workers like they are just widgets to be moved around.”
Railroads lobbied GOP senators to oppose the paid sick leave measure, arguing that congressional modifications to a contract would set a dangerous precedent.
“Unless Congress wants to become the de facto endgame for future negotiations, any effort to put its thumb on the bargaining scale to artificially advantage either party or otherwise obstruct a swift resolution would be wholly irresponsible and risk a timely outcome to avoid significant economic harm,” Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.
Railroads have drawn the ire of workers and progressive lawmakers for refusing to offer paid sick days despite making record profits in recent years amid soaring demand for shipped products.
The Senate also rejected a proposal sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) to delay any potential strike for 60 days to give railroad companies and unions more time to negotiate a deal.
That proposal garnered the support of many Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), an influential moderate.
She said sending the negotiators back to the bargaining table “would send a signal to both sides that we want them to solve this problem and not have Congress get involved in imposing a settlement that four of the 12 unions have rejected.”
Labor unions swiftly pushed back on the proposal. They noted that it would delay raises for workers and argued that railroads were not interested in negotiating further.
Sullivan’s legislation to establish a 60-day cooling off period failed by a vote of 25 yes votes to 70 noes. It needed 60 yes votes to pass the Senate.
The failure of the measure to give railroad workers seven days of sick leave sets up a vote on another House-passed bill to implement the tentative agreement negotiated between railroad companies and unions with the help of the Biden administration.
That agreement would increase wages by 24 percent by 2024 and $1,000 annual bonuses over a period of five years.
It was rejected by four of the 12 rail unions, however, because it did not provide for any paid sick days, just one additional personal day.
—Updated at 5 p.m.