Shipping conainers sit ready for transport via rail off of Pier J at the Port of Long Beach Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Legislation to avert a rail strike that would cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars is on its way to President Joe Biden for final approval after the Senate passed the item Thursday afternoon.

The agreement will provide tens of thousands of rail workers with 24% pay increases over five years from 2020 through 2024, immediate payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification and one paid personal day off. The legislation, however, did not include any paid sick leave, which was a key demand for the unions amid negotiations.

“This leaves me baffled, exasperated, and deeply saddened,” Tony Cardwell, national division president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said in a statement following the votes.

The House passed the tentative agreement Wednesday 290 to 137, with 79 Republicans joining Democrats in voting for the bill. Eight Democrats and 129 Republicans voted against the bill.

In a separate, more partisan 221 to 207 vote, the House approved a resolution to provide seven days of paid sick leave. Sick leave was the most contentious union demand, which operators refused to budge. Rail workers currently don’t have any guaranteed paid sick leave.

While the Senate voted 80 to 15 in favor of the tentative agreement, it failed to pass the sick leave resolution with a vote of 52 to 43—the resolution needed 60 votes to pass.

“It is shocking and appalling that any member of Congress would cast a vote against any sort of provision that raises the standard of living for hard-working Americans,” Cardwell said. “In fact, such a vote is nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office and you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office.”

The Association of American Railroads trade group, meanwhile, praised the Senate vote to impose the compromise deal that includes the biggest raises in more than four decades. Still, CEO Ian Jefferies acknowledged that many workers remain unhappy with working conditions. “Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns, but it is clear this agreement maintains rail’s place among the best jobs in our nation,” Jefferies said.

Thursday’s votes are the result of Biden imploring Congress to intervene in the stonewalled negotiations between railroad operators and several major unions. In September, the Biden administration brokered a tentative agreement that was ratified by two unions.

One of the most politically powerful rail unions, however, rejected the deal along with three others. Despite the majority of unions ratifying agreements, all rail workers would honor the picket line if any union were to strike, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen President Dennis Pierce previously said.

A series of short strikes were planned to begin as early as Dec. 9, which could have cost the U.S. economy upward of $2 billion per day, according to the Association of American Railroads. A rail strike would not only impact cargo trains but also short line, passenger and commuter trains.

In Long Beach, anywhere from 20% to 28% of cargo is transported via rail, and a work stoppage would have a “huge impact” on the goods movement industry, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said in an email Thursday.

“Railway goods movement and labor are an irreplaceable part of the supply chain,” Cordero said.

West Coast dockworkers also are in the midst of grueling labor negotiations that began in May, two months before their contracts expired in July. Negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association continue amid a media blackout, but no strikes or slowdowns have been announced.

The union, however, has weighed in several times regarding the rail worker dispute. Now that the Senate approved the agreement to the benefit of rail operators, ignoring a key complaint of workers, the ILWU and pro-union advocates claim Congress has undermined union rights nationwide.

“Congress talks about ‘saving democracy’ at the ballot box, but they just totally undermined workplace democracy by imposing a contract that workers voted to reject,” ILWU President Willie Adams said in a statement following the Senate vote.

“It is wrong to impose a rejected contract, period,” Adams continued. “Congress had the option to allow more time for the railroad workers to negotiate better benefits with their highly profitable employers, and they had the option to add paid sick days. There’s no excuse for taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights. Congress failed America’s workers today.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct when the ILWU-PMA contract negotiations began.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.