Delaware’s Congressional delegation grapples with intervention in railroad labor standoff

The US Senate delegation from Delaware is preparing to host congressional intervention in the contract dispute between four of the largest railroad workers’ unions and major railroad operators.

In the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester voted Wednesday on a bill that would impose a Biden administration-brokered deal as negotiations stalled earlier this year. The deal includes a 24% pay rise for railway workers – the first since 2019.

Four of the 12 national rail unions – representing half of the entire workforce – had previously opposed the deal, warning they could go on strike if a compromise on key demands was not reached by December 9.

These demands include the provision of paid sick leave, which rail workers generally do not receive; Instead, railroad operators typically offer higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits in lieu of sick leave, although benefits do not start immediately when a worker falls ill.

Rail workers’ unions in general have raised concerns about unpredictable working hours, which limit workers’ ability to maintain their personal lives – a challenge that has escalated after major rail companies cut almost a third of workers’ jobs to cut labor costs.

A nationwide railroad strike would effectively freeze much of the economy, prompting the Biden administration to ask Congress to intervene. Although relatively few railroad workers live in Delaware, a railroad strike would shut down a depot vital to the operation of the already struggling Port of Wilmington. It would also cut off the Delmarva Central Railroad – a major freight corridor for the counties of Kent and Sussex – from the national rail system; While the railroad’s employees are non-union, the Delmarva Central Railroad operates with the Norfolk Southern Railway in New Castle County to connect with the rest of the country.

Blunt Rochester also voted on Wednesday for a separate measure to add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract – a proposal aimed at addressing the four unions’ key concerns.

Senator Tom Carper says Senate Democrats will debate the treaty on Thursday. While he sticks to the plan to step in and enforce a treaty to avoid the consequences of a strike, Carper finds he is reluctant to do so.

“I do not take lightly the prospect of intervening in an industrial dispute, nor do my colleagues and certainly this President and Secretary Walsh,” he said. “We don’t usually do this if we can avoid it. ”

Most recently, Congress used its powers under the Railroad Labor Act to intervene in a national railroad labor dispute in the 1990s.

As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Carper says he also wants to avoid undermining the railroad industry — a far more efficient alternative to road freight.

“A major source of CO2 emissions in this country is our cars, trucks and vans, and probably disproportionately our trucks,” he said. “Trains can be a great help to counteract that.”

So far, Delaware senators have not indicated whether they support the measure allowing railroad workers seven days of sick leave as part of the contract.

During a speech in the Senate on Wednesday, Carper expressed concern over the sick leave dispute. “We are in this scenario because the railroad companies are not backing down to give employees paid sick leave,” he said. “This is wrong and we should work on it, but not at the cost of a devastating rail standstill.”

But forcing the treaty on the four railroad unions without meeting some of their remaining demands would not necessarily prevent a strike. Railroad workers could potentially go on wildcat strikes to oppose the treaty, although doing so would lose some legal protections.

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