Tentative agreement reached to avoid national rail strike

The White House and federal officials, working around-the-clock with railroad unions and railway companies, late Wednesday struck a tentative deal ahead of a Friday deadline to avert a rail strike that threatened massive disruption and price hikes across the United States.

President Biden announced the news in a statement this morning. The president had been weighing an emergency decree and Congress had discussed its powers to act if the unions and companies could not agree before the deadline. Biden called in around 9 p.m. Wednesday as 20 hours of talks were underway, according to The New York Times.

The tentative deal affecting more than 100,000 workers must be ratified by the union members, who agreed not to strike in the interim. 

Negotiating parties agreed to a “post-ratification cooling off period” of several weeks, to ensure that if a vote fails for any reason, there will not be an immediate rail shutdown, CBS News reported.

“The tentative agreement reached tonight is an important win for our economy and the American people,” the president said, calling it “a win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic.”

“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” he said. And railway companies will benefit, he added, by being “able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will continue to be part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.”

A 30-day moratorium that had so far forestalled a strike was set to end Friday for members of the two largest U.S. freight rail unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or BLET, and SMART Transportation Division.Both had yet to reach deals with rail carriers, which had struck or were close to reaching tentative agreements with the other 10 of the country’s 12 rail unions.

A rail strike could have cost an estimated $2 billion a day and the risk of a shutdown had already disrupted shipments of agricultural products and chemicals, and would have slowed delivery of everything from new cars, coal and oil to consumer goods.

The possibility of a work stoppage forced Amtrak on Wednesday to preemptively cancel long-distance rail services beginning today on tracks owned and maintained by freight rail companies, with exceptions for the Northeast’s commuting corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston because Amtrak owns those tracks (Bloomberg News).

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, a former union leader heavily involved for weeks in the back-and-forth and all throughout Wednesday’s talks, used Twitter this morning to announce without details that “following more than 20 consecutive hours of negotiations at @USDOL, the rail companies and union negotiators came to a tentative agreement that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy. The Biden Administration applauds all parties for reaching this hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal. Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country.”

Here are five major points in the agreement:

Time off for medical appointments

In the agreement, workers would be allowed to take time off for medical appointments without being penalized. This was a key sticking point that held up negotiations.

Leading rail unions warned that their members would not ratify an agreement that didn’t address sick time. 

More time off

Workers were provided voluntarily assigned days off and given one additional paid day off. Rail workers have complained about widespread fatigue and attendance policies that complicate their ability to take time off for any reason.

Block health care hikes

The agreement blocks increases to health care copays and deductibles, a big get for workers. Unions said that the measure took 20 hours of negotiation to secure.

Two-person crews

The deal protects two-person crews for the indefinite future, another top priority for workers who said that they faced increased safety risks by being forced to operate trains solo.

Pay raises

Workers will receive 24 percent raises over five years, back pay and cash bonuses. These terms were similar to those recommended by a White House-appointed board on the matter last month.

The deal will now go to union members for a vote. Workers had pledged to vote down a contract based on the presidential board’s guidance because it didn’t address their concerns about unsafe working conditions and insufficient sick leave. 

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