Rail companies and their workers came to a tentative agreement Thursday to stop a nationwide strike that could have stopped freight trains and hurt the economy less than two months before the midterm elections.
The two sides had been discussing the contract for years without agreeing, and the deadline was Friday at 12:01 a.m.
President Joe Biden announced the deal. It was reached after a marathon 20-hour round of talks at the Labor Department. Just one day before the threatened walkout, the announcement was made.
“This agreement is validation of what I’ve always believed — unions and management can work together … for the benefit of everyone,” Biden said in the White House Rose Garden.
Biden got right in the middle of the argument.
Two White House officials who didn’t want to be named but talked about the president’s involvement said that Vice President Joe Biden called both sides and told them that “a shutdown is unacceptable” after a day of talks with administration officials.
Before a possible strike deadline on Friday, railroads were getting ready to stop shipping crops and delay shipments of farm fertilizers.
Because Amtrak and many commuter railroads use tracks that belong to freight railroads, a strike would have also impacted freight and passenger transportation for the American public.
Amtrak and commuter railroads were ready for cuts, delays, and cancellations in service.
After a few weeks, union members will vote on the agreement, including a 24% wage boost.
Biden, a Democrat who thinks unions built the middle class, took a political risk by threatening to shut down the government.
However, he was also aware of how a rail workers’ strike may harm the economy before the midterm elections.
At those elections, majorities in both houses of Congress, key governorships, and many essential state offices will be up for grabs.
Better wages, better working conditions, and assurance about health care expenses will all benefit rail workers.
Some of the terms of the deal are:
- Voluntary assigned days off and one additional paid day off (Unions had sought 15 paid sick days. Currently, rail freight workers don’t have any sick days)
- Guaranteed time away for medical visits
- No disruptions to current health care plans
- An immediate wage increase of 14% and 24% over the next five-year period
- Annual lump sum bonuses of $5,000
The deal changed workplace attendance policies that workers thought were too harsh.
In a joint statement, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division said that workers would be able to take time off for medical care without getting in trouble.
Those attendance policies had become the central sticking point as the deadline for a deal neared.
Victor Chen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies labor, said that unions and the workers they represent care more and more about working conditions.
“At a certain point, good wages just aren’t enough to make up for the toll these sorts of working conditions impose on workers,” Chen said.
“The companies need to treat workers like human beings, rather than just inputs in a business process.”
After the main railroads reduced about one-third of their staff (or around 45,000 jobs) over the past six years, the railroad unions cited workload and attendance regulations.
Costs have been cut everywhere in the railroad industry, and operations are now based on fewer, longer trains that use fewer locomotives and workers.
The unions said that the remaining workers, especially engineers and conductors, were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because of job cuts. They also said that strict attendance rules made it hard for them to take time off.
Chen said that the tight job market and ongoing service problems on the railroads gave unions an edge at the bargaining table.
Shippers have been very upset about the supply chain disruptions and bad service this year. This is because railroads had difficulty hiring enough people quickly enough to keep up with a rise in demand as the economy recovered from the pandemic.
The problems with shipping gave union leaders and rail workers more power.
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