Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. Business groups are increasing the pressure on lawmakers to intervene and block a railroad strike before next month's deadline in the stalled contract talks. Credit: Danny Karnik / AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives moved urgently to head off a looming nationwide rail strike on Wednesday, passing a bill that would bind companies and workers to a proposed settlement reached in September but rejected by some of the unions involved.

The measure passed by a strong vote of 290-137 and now heads to the Senate. If approved there, it will be quickly signed by President Joe Biden, who requested the action.

Biden on Monday asked Congress to intervene and avert the rail stoppage that could strike a devastating blow to the nation’s fragile economy by disrupting the transportation of fuel, food and other critical goods. Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that halting rail service would cause a $2 billion per day hit to the economy.

The bill would impose a compromise labor agreement brokered by the Biden administration that was ultimately voted down by four of the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 employees at large freight rail carriers. The unions have threatened to strike if an agreement can’t be reached before a Dec. 9 deadline.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed reservations about overriding the negotiations. Intervening was particularly difficult for Democratic lawmakers who have traditionally sought to align themselves with the politically powerful labor unions that criticized Biden’s move to intervene in the contract dispute and block a strike.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, responded to concerns by adding a second vote Wednesday that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for rail workers covered under the agreement. It will take effect only if the Senate passes both measures.

The Biden-brokered deal was supported by 211 Democrats and 79 Republicans, while only eight Democrats including Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District opposed it and voted for the seven days of leave. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District backed both bills.

Golden, who has most often bucked Biden as a centrist on economic and other issues, criticized this deal from the left, saying in a statement that it “undermines the fundamental bargaining power of workers and unions” and was an extraordinary step not taken in 30 years.

“Rather than weigh the gravity of such a move and pursue other viable steps that would have continued to respect the bargaining process, today the House opted for the option of last resort,” he said.

The call for more paid sick leave was a major sticking point in the talks. The railroads say the unions have agreed in negotiations over the decades to forgo paid sick time in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.

The head of the Association of American Railroads trade group said Tuesday that railroads would consider adding paid sick time in the future, but said that change should wait for a new round of negotiations instead of being added now, near the end of three years of contract talks.

The unions maintain that railroads can easily afford to add paid sick time at a time when they are recording record profits. Several of the big railroads involved in these contract talks reported more than $1 billion profit in the third quarter.

“Quite frankly, the fact that paid leave is not part of the final agreement between railroads and labor is, in my opinion, obscene,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “It should be there and I hope it will be there at the end of this process.”

Republicans also voiced support for the measure to block the strike, but criticized the Biden administration for turning to Congress to fix the problem.

“They’ve retreated in failure and they kicked this problem to Congress for us to decide,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.

Republicans also criticized Pelosi’s decision to add the sick leave second bill to the mix. They said the Biden administration’s own special board of arbitrators recommended higher wages to compensate the unions for not including sick time in its recommendations.

Pelosi sought to position Democrats and the Biden administration as defenders of unions and slammed the rail companies, saying they’ve slashed jobs, increased worker hours and cut corners on safety. But she said Congress needed to intervene.

The compromise agreement that was supported by the railroads and a majority of the unions provides for 24 percent raises and $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020 along with one additional paid leave day. The raises would be the biggest rail workers have received in more than four decades.

Workers would have to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs, but their premiums would be capped at 15 percent of the total cost of the insurance plan. The agreement did not resolve workers’ concerns about schedules that make it hard to take a day off and the lack of more paid sick time.

Story by Kevin Freking and Josh Funk. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.