(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden said Thursday that a tentative railway labor agreement has been reached, averting a strike that could have been devastating to the economy before the pivotal midterm elections.
The Labor Department hosted 20-hour negotiations between railroads and union reps on Wednesday in an effort to reach a settlement. There was concern that a strike could start on Friday, which would have caused rail line closures across the nation.
According to a White House official, Biden called Marty Walsh, Labor Secretary at 9 p.m. while the negotiations were continuing after an Italian dinner was brought in. This call came as close to the end of closed-door negotiations. Biden told negotiators they must consider how a shutdown could affect families, farmers, and businesses.
After much back and forth, a tentative deal was reached that will now be put to vote by union members after a few weeks of cooling off.
“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” Biden said. “The agreement is also a victory for railway companies who will be 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.”
Continue reading: America’s Railroads Are in Trouble–With or Without a Strike
Retroactive to 2020 the five-year agreement includes 24% increases and $5,000 in bonus payments that were recommended by the Presidential Emergency Board this summer. But railroads 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 doctor’s appointments without being penalized under railroad attendance rules. Previously workers could lose points under the Union Pacific and BNSF attendance systems. If they lost all of their points, they would be disciplined.
Unions representing the engineers and conductors who operate the trains have pushed hard for attendance changes. They said that this agreement sets the precedent that they can negotiate these rules. The workers must still vote on whether these changes will be approved.
Biden had been in trouble politically due to the possibility of a government shutdown. While the Democratic president is convinced that unions created the middle class, he knew full well that a strike among rail workers could cause economic damage ahead of midterm elections, which will determine whether majorities are in either chamber of Congress or the governorships of key states.
This left him in an awkward situation on Wednesday. While he flew to Detroit to promote the benefits of unionization and members of his government worked tirelessly to maintain talks in Washington between railroads workers unionized,
As the administration was trying to forge peace, United Auto Workers Local 598 member Ryan Buchalski introduced Biden at the Detroit auto show on Wednesday as “the most union- and labor-friendly president in American history” and someone who was “kickin’ ass for the working class.” Buchalski harked back to the pivotal sitdown strikes by autoworkers in the 1930s.
In the speech that followed, Biden recognized that he wouldn’t be in the White House without the support of unions such as the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, saying autoworkers “brung me to the dance.”
Biden knew, however that without an agreement among 12 unions back in Washington that Friday could have been the start of a stoppage that would stop shipments of fuel and food at $2 billion per day.
There was much more at stake than the sick leave and raises in salary for 115,000 railway workers who were unionized. It was possible for Congress to be taken over and that the U.S. could lose control of its shipping system, the one that stocks stores shelves and holds the country together as an economic force.
That’s why White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking aboard Air Force One as it jetted to Detroit on Wednesday, said a rail worker strike was “an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people.” The rail lines and their workers’ representatives “need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and come to an agreement,” she said.
Biden faced the same kind of predicament faced by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel — how do you balance the needs of labor and business in doing what’s best for the nation? Woodrow Wilson briefly nationalized railways in order to maintain goods flow and stop strikes during World War I.
Inside the White House, aides don’t see a contradiction between Biden’s devotion to unions and his desire to avoid a strike. Biden has seen a surge in union activism, as evidenced by a 56% rise in petitions to the National Labor Relations Board for union representation so far in this fiscal year.
One person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House deliberations on the matter, said Biden’s mindset in approaching the debate was that he’s the president of the entire country, not just for organized labor.
With the economy still recovering from the supply chain disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s goal was to keep all parties so a deal could be reached. According to the person, the White House considered a commitment that all parties would continue to negotiate in good faith to prevent a shutdown and to preserve the principles of collective bargaining which Biden cherishes.
Biden was also aware that stopping the flow of inflation could lead to more instability, which would be a problem for his party.
Eddie Vale (a Democratic political consultant, and an AFL-CIO communications adviser), said that at dangerous times, the White House had taken the right path.
“No one wants a railroad strike, not the companies, not the workers, not the White House,” he said. “No one wants it this close to the election.”
Vale added that the sticking point in the talks was about “respect basically — sick leave and bereavement leave,” issues Biden has supported in speeches and with his policy proposals.
To avoid a government shutdown, Senate Republicans voted Wednesday in favor of a bill to impose contractual terms on railroad and union companies. The law was stopped by the Democrats, who control both Congresses.
“If a strike occurs and paralyzes food, fertilizer and energy shipments nationwide, it will be because Democrats blocked this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Business Roundtable members, which is a Washington-based organization that represents CEOs and other business leaders, did not underestimate the economic consequences of possible strikes. On Wednesday, it released its quarterly outlook for economic growth.
“We’ve been experiencing a lot of headwinds from supply chain problems since the pandemic started and those problems would be geometrically magnified,” Josh Bolten, the group’s CEO, told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants around the country that likely have to shut down. … There are critical products to keep our water clean.”
On Wednesday, the roundtable had its annual meeting with its board. But Bolten said Lance Fritz, chair of the board’s international committee and the CEO of Union Pacific railroad, would miss it “because he’s working hard trying to bring the strike to a resolution.”
By 5:05 a.m. Thursday, it was clear that the hard work across the government, unions and railway companied had paid off as Biden announced the deal, calling it “an important win for our economy and the American people.”
Josh Funk, AP reporter, contributed.
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