U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday afternoon stood up against Republicans' attempt to force 115,000 railroad workers to accept a contract recommended by a presidential board last month, saying the GOP wants to hinder the workers' fight "for sick leave and better working conditions."
The Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a nonpartisan panel appointed by President Joe Biden last month, recommended that rail carriers and union workers accept a contract with wage increases, but unions expressed outrage that the recommendations did not include a paid sick leave policy or address stringent "points-based" attendance rules which requires engineers and conductors to work many days—and sometimes consecutive weeks or months—with no time off, to make up for taking a weekend off.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said the contract recommended by the PEB should be accepted and called on Biden to push for its adoption, but Democratic leaders have expressed hope that railway carriers and the workers' unions can come to an agreement before 12:01 am Eastern Time on Friday, when workers can strike.
"Democrats are not going to impose these contracts without dealing with the issue of workers' working lives," Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America, told The Washington Post. "Republicans are viciously against collective bargaining, but carriers are going to have to respect people's lives and there's going to have to be respect for these workers. They're not getting a settlement without it."
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sanders condemned the rail industry for trying to pressure workers into accepting working conditions which he called "absolutely unacceptable" and "almost beyond belief," noting that rail carriers have "seen huge profits in recent years."
In 2021, the Vermont Independent senator noted, carriers "made a record-breaking $20 billion in profit" while "the CEOs of many of these rail companies are enjoying huge compensation packages."
"In the midst of all of those profit increases for the industry, what's going on for the workers?" he asked, before saying railroad engineers are "entitled to a grand total of zero sick days."
Unions and carriers are under pressure to reach an agreement, as a strike would temporarily harm supply chains across the nation.
On Wednesday, Amtrak announced it would cancel long-distance trips starting Thursday in anticipation of the strike.
Labor reporter Jonah Furman argued that the current threat to railroad operations is not a potential strike over unfair working conditions, but a "lockout" controlled solely by powerful railroad companies.
"There is not a single worker on strike on the U.S. rails right now," said Furman. "There are CEOs shutting down rail lines and withholding goods to shock Congress into forcing a deal on 100,000 workers."
According to Sanders, what Congress should be doing "is telling the CEOs in the rail industry: Treat your workers with dignity and respect, not contempt."