Biden: Tentative railway labor deal reached, averting strike
WASHINGTON — Rail companies and their workers reached a tentative agreement Thursday to avert a nationwide strike that could have shut down the nation’s freight trains and devastated the economy less than two months before the midterm elections.
President Joe Biden announced the deal, which emerged from a marathon 20-hour negotiating session at the Labor Department and came just one day before the threatened walkout.
“This agreement confirms what I have always believed — that unions and management can cooperate… for everyone’s benefit,” Biden stated at the White House.
The deal, which includes a 24% pay raise, will go to union members for a vote after a cooling-off period of several weeks.
The threat of a shutdown posed political risks to Biden, a Democrat who believes that unions have built the middle class. Biden also recognized that a strike on the rails could have serious economic consequences ahead of the midterm elections, when majorities will be at stake in both Congress and governorships.
Biden called Marty Walsh, Labor Secretary, Wednesday evening as negotiators were chatting and were offered Italian food for dinner. White House officials refused to disclose the conversation.
The president called Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on Wednesday evening to urge them to reach a settlement and to consider the impact that a shutdown could have on families, farmers, and businesses, according to officials.
One union needed to get up its board in order to proceed with the agreement. This involved 50 calls by White House officials to organized labor officials.
Biden, a smiling man, joked that he was shocked that everyone was still standing after the late-night party and that they should all be “home in bed .”
A strike would have also disrupted freight and passenger traffic, since Amtrak and many commuter railways operate on tracks owned and maintained by freight railroads. Amtrak cancelled all long-distance trains before the strike deadline, and was working to restore full service.
The five-year deal, retroactive to 2020, also includes $5,000 in bonuses. To address union concerns regarding working conditions, the railroads agreed to relax their strict attendance policies.
Railroad workers can now take unpaid days off to go to doctor’s appointments. They won’t be penalized if the worker is hospitalized. Previously, workers could lose points under the attendance systems of BNSF and Union Pacific railways. If they lost all their points, they could be disciplined. The talks also included Canadian National’s U.S. operations, CSX, Kansas City Southern, and Norfolk Southern.
The unions representing conductors and engineers driving the trains demanded changes to the attendance rules. They said that the agreement sets a precedent and will allow them to negotiate similar rules in the future.
Kelly Pettus is married to an Atlanta engineer and requested more information about the attendance policy.
In the early part of this year, her husband had a heart attack and their 2-year-old daughter was admitted to the hospital with the flu. He worried about the consequences of taking one day off.
” You can’t just call to say your baby is in the hospital,” Pettus stated.
Hugh Sawyer is an engineer from the Atlanta area. He said that the pay increase was long overdue but did not fully compensate for the cost-of-living rises he had lost several years back.
” “It’s something we can build on,” Sawyer said about the deal. Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen predicted that workers would ultimately support the deal if he looked at all the benefits, including the fact the unions fought against proposals to reduce locomotive crews from two to one.
But it is difficult to predict the outcome if workers vote vengeance.
” “I believe it is going to drastically change the way these jobs appear,” he stated.
Victor Chen is a sociologe at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies labor and says that concerns about working conditions are becoming a top priority for unions as well as their workers. Chen stated that good wages are not enough to compensate for the hardships these working conditions cause to workers. “The companies need to treat workers like human beings, rather than just inputs in a business process.”
The railroad unions pointed to workload and attendance rules after the major railroads cut nearly one-third of their workforce — some 45,000 jobs — over the past six years. The rail industry has cut costs everywhere and switched its operations to rely on fewer trains and fewer employees. The unions said the remaining workers, particularly engineers and conductors, were on call 24-7 because of jobs cuts and could hardly take any time off under strict attendance rules. Chen stated that
Unions enjoyed an advantage in negotiations due to the tight labor market, and ongoing service issues on the railroads.
Shippers voiced their dissatisfaction this year with delays and poor service, as railroads struggled quickly to hire enough workers to handle the surge in demand that followed the pandemic. Rail workers had extra leverage because of the shipping issues.
Newly appointed CEO of CSX Joe Hinrichs stated that he hopes the new agreement will allow the railroad to hire and retain more employees to solve the service issues.
” Now we can continue our conversation about how we can work together to grow our business and better serve customers,” he stated.
Union activism is on the rise under Biden. This can be seen in a 56% rise in petitions for union representation at the National Labor Relations Board, which includes prominent organizing efforts at Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable predicted that a strike on rails would cause an economic disaster.
The Association of American Railroads trade association estimated that a strike could cost the economy more that $2 billion per day, and force many businesses into production cuts or to consider layoffs. With the economy still recovering from the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, the president wanted to keep all parties in the loop so that a deal could be reached.
Biden knew that a stoppage could make the situation worse, which in turn led to soaring inflation and created political headaches for the party at power.
He faced the same dilemma as Harry Truman in 1952 steel and Theodore Roosevelt 1902 with coke. How can a president balance business and labor in order to do the best for the country?
Railways played a vital role in World War I. Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized them to ensure that goods were flowing and avoid strikes.
The administration jumped in to the middle of the negotiations. Biden and cabinet officials called both parties, and the labor secretary was present at negotiations.
It was clear the effort had paid off when Biden announced the deal, calling it “an important win for our economy and the American people.”
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Alexandra Olson, Associated Press Writer in New York City, contributed to this report.
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