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The stalemate between railroads and their unions could be coming to an end

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The stalemate between railroads and their unions could be coming to an end. President Biden this morning is signing legislation that would force rail unions to accept an agreement negotiated in September. The House and Senate both passed the bill that leaves out the sick leave that was a major sticking point for workers. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo has been following these negotiations. So earlier this week, President Biden asked Congress to pass the bill, and it seems like the president got what he wanted.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Yeah, he definitely did. And Congress really acted fast on this one. The formal ask came down from the president on Monday, and by Thursday mid-afternoon, the bill had already passed the House and the Senate. And the president made it clear he wanted a bill by Saturday, so this really was fast. So the bill does do one thing, and it requires that all 12 railroad unions accept the tentative agreement. This was the agreement negotiated between Biden administration members, managers and union leaders back in September. And by requiring that the unions accept this, it makes any strike illegal. And workers were ready to strike as soon as Dec. 9 because four of the 12 unions had rejected that agreement.

Now, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh came to talk to Senate Democrats on Thursday. And when he came out, he told reporters that he didn't think more time for negotiations would be helpful and that any negotiations were now in the hands of the Senate. So lawmakers had to decide between letting union workers and managers further negotiate or step in now to avoid a potential economic crash if workers strike.

MARTÍNEZ: What kind of options did lawmakers look at to resolve this impasse?

BUSTILLO: Sure. The biggest sticking point was that the contract only provides for one day of personal leave. And that's why House members wanted to add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract. Despite this passing the House and even having some GOP support, this measure also failed. So six Republicans voted in favor alongside 49 Democrats. One Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, voted against. And here he is explaining why he didn't want to make changes to the tentative agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MANCHIN: Piece of legislation had already being negotiated by the secretary of labor and the labor unions and president. And I didn't think we should be interacting because if we do, it'd never stop.

BUSTILLO: And the next measure voted on did pass, and that was the 80-15 vote. Lawmakers approved the bill that forces unions to accept the contract as is.

MARTÍNEZ: I know Joe Biden considers himself a very pro-labor president, and he's thought to have an administration favorable to unions. How does he feel about all this?

BUSTILLO: You're right. He definitely does. And Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is a card-carrying union leader. And Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was also involved in talks, has previously visited John Deere workers while they were picketing. So very pro pro-union here. But Biden's No. 1 priority this week was getting the contract approved as soon as possible. This is because a major economic collapse was potentially around the corner, and his own advisers were telling him that railroad managers and unions were not going to reach an agreement before the Dec. 9 strike deadline.

The president warned that a rail shutdown could cause a recession, and this is because rails carry the bulk of key items, like ethanol needed for gasoline and fertilizer needed for crops and food. Workers advocated that they should get sick leave in part because they work long hours and weeks during the pandemic when many got to work from home or even take time off. And they felt invisible during the pandemic, even though they helped keep our supply chains alive. So some Republicans voted against the agreement because they say the president could have negotiated a better deal to begin with. But Biden touts that he negotiated a contract that no one else could. And this is because the contract has been nearly five years in the making.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo. Thanks a lot.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "IN MY HEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.