President Joe Biden said Thursday that a tentative rail labor deal has been reached, averting a strike that could have been devastating to the economy ahead of crucial midterm elections.
Railroad and union representatives had been in negotiations for 20 hours at the Labor Department on Wednesday to reach an agreement, as there was a risk of a strike from Friday that could have shut down rail lines across the country.
Biden made a key phone call to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at 9 p.m. as talks unfolded after the Italian dinner was brought in, according to a White House official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. to discuss closed negotiations. . The president told negotiators to consider the damage to families, farmers and businesses if a shutdown were to occur.
What resulted from the back-and-forth was a tentative agreement to be put to a vote by union members after a post-ratification cooling-off period of several weeks.
“These rail workers will get better wages, better working conditions and peace of mind about their health care costs – all hard-earned,” Biden said. “The deal is also a victory for rail companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will remain part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.”
The strike would also have disrupted passenger traffic, as well as freight rail lines, because Amtrak and many commuter railroads operate on tracks owned by freight railroads. Amtrak had already canceled several of its long-distance trains this week and said the rest of its long-distance trains would stop Thursday before the strike deadline.
Following the tentative agreement, Amtrak said it was “working to quickly restore canceled trains and communicate with affected customers to accommodate them on the first available departures.”
The five-year deal, retroactive to 2020, includes the 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses that an Emergency Presidential Meeting recommended this summer. But the railways also agreed to ease their strict attendance policies to address some of the unions’ concerns about working conditions.
Railroad workers will now be able to take unpaid days off for medical appointments without being penalized under rail attendance rules. Previously, workers lost points under attendance systems that the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads had adopted, and could be penalized if they lost all of their points.
Unions representing the conductors and engineers running the trains had lobbied hard for attendance rules to be changed and said this deal sets a precedent that they will be able to negotiate on such rules in the future. But workers will still have to vote on whether those changes are enough to pass the deal.
The threat of a shutdown had put Biden in a sticky political spot. The Democratic president believes unions built the middle class, but he also knew a strike by rail workers could hurt the economy ahead of midterm elections, when majorities in both houses of Congress, key governorships and many top state offices will be up for grabs. .
That left him in an awkward position on Wednesday. He flew to Detroit, a stronghold of the labor movement, to defend the virtues of unionization, while members of his administration did their best to keep talks in Washington between the railroads and unionized workers.
As the administration tried to forge peace, Ryan Buchalski, a member of the United Auto Workers Local 598, introduced Biden at the Detroit auto show as “the most pro-union, pro-labor president in American history.” Buchalski dated back to the pivotal sit-down strikes of autoworkers in the 1930s.
In the speech that followed, Biden acknowledged that he would not be in the White House without the support of unions like the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, saying that autoworkers “took me to the dance.”
But without an agreement among the 12 unions in talks in Washington, Biden also knew a strike could halt food and fuel shipments at a cost of $2 billion a day.
Much more was at stake than sick leave and pay raises for 115,000 unionized rail workers. The ramifications could have extended to control of Congress and the shipping network that keeps factories running, stocks store shelves and unites the US as an economic powerhouse.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking aboard Air Force One en route to Detroit, said a strike by rail workers was “an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people.”
Mr. Biden faced the same kind of situation that Theodore Roosevelt faced in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel: how do you balance the needs of labor and business to do what is best for the nation? Railroads were so important during World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the industry to keep goods flowing and prevent strikes.
Union activism has increased under Biden, as seen in a 56% increase in petitions for union representation before the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year.
With the economy still recovering from supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s goal was to keep all sides together so he could reach a deal. Biden also knew that a walkout could worsen the dynamic that has contributed to rising inflation and created a political headache for the party in power.
Eddie Vale, a Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications assistant, said the White House followed the right approach at a dangerous time.
“No one wants a rail strike, not the companies, not the workers, not the White House,” he said. “Nobody wants it this close to the election.”
Sensing a political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to pass legislation to impose contract terms on unions and rail companies to prevent a lockout. Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, blocked it.
The economic impact of a possible strike was not lost on members of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group that represents CEOs. It issued its quarterly outlook for the economy on Wednesday.
“We’ve been experiencing a lot of headwinds from supply chain issues since the pandemic started and those issues would be magnified geometrically,” Josh Bolten, chief executive of the group, told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants all over the country that probably have to close. … There are critical products to keep our water clean.”
At 5:05 a.m. Thursday, it was clear that the hard work of the government, unions and rail companies had paid off when Biden announced the deal, calling it “an important victory for our economy and the American people.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP reporter Josh Funk contributed.