Tentative labor deal averts threat of nationwide rail strike

Sep 14, 2022, 9:17 AM | Updated: Sep 15, 2022, 11:56 pm

President Joe Biden speaks about a tentative railway labor agreement in the Rose Garden of the Whit...

President Joe Biden speaks about a tentative railway labor agreement in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Washington. From left, Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Biden, Celeste Drake, Made in America Director at the Office of Management and Budget, and National Economic Council director Brian Deese. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 is validation of what I’ve always believed — unions and management can work together … for the benefit of everyone,” Biden said 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 carried political risks for Biden, a Democrat who believes unions built the middle class. But he also knew a rail strike could pose grave economic risks ahead of the midterms, when majorities in both chambers of Congress, key governorships and scores of important state offices will be up for grabs.

Biden made a key phone call Wednesday evening to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as negotiators were talking and being offered Italian food for dinner, according to White House officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss the conversations.

On speakerphone, the president urged both sides to get a deal done and to consider the harm that a shutdown would inflict on families, farmers and businesses , the officials said.

One union had to wake up its board to move forward on the agreement, which involved 50 calls from White House officials to organized labor officials.

Joined in the Oval Office by business and union leaders, a beaming Biden joked that he was surprised everyone was “still standing” after the late night and that they should be “home in bed.”

A strike would also have disrupted passenger traffic as well as freight, because Amtrak and many commuter railroads operate on tracks owned by the freight railroads. Amtrak canceled all of its long-distance trains ahead of the strike deadline and was working to restore full service.

The five-year deal, retroactive to 2020, also includes $5,000 in bonuses. The railroads agreed to ease their strict attendance policies to address union concerns about working conditions.

Railroad workers will now be able to take unpaid days off for doctor’s appointments without being penalized, and they won’t be penalized if they are hospitalized. Previously, workers would lose points under the attendance systems at BNSF and Union Pacific railways, and they could be disciplined if they lost all their points.

The talks also included Norfolk Southern, CSX, Kansas City Southern and the U.S. operations of Canadian National.

The unions that represent conductors and engineers who drive the trains pressed hard for changes in the attendance rules, and they said the deal sets a precedent that ensures they will be able to negotiate such rules in the future.

Kelly Pettus, who is married to an engineer in Atlanta, said she wanted more details about the attendance policy.

Earlier this year, her husband had to leave work when their 2-year-old daughter ended up in the emergency room with the flu. He spent the entire time worrying about the penalty involved in taking a single day off.

“You can’t just call and say your baby is in hospital,” Pettus said.

Hugh Sawyer, an engineer in the Atlanta area, said the pay raise was long overdue and did not completely make up for the regular cost-of-living increases that he lost several years ago.

“It’s something to build on,” Sawyer said of the deal.

The president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Dennis Pierce, predicted that workers will ultimately support the deal if they look logically at all the gains, including the fact that the unions again fought off proposals to cut locomotive crews down from two people to one.

But if workers vote angry, the outcome is harder to predict.

“I think it is going to dramatically change the way these jobs look,” he said.

Victor Chen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies labor, said concerns about working conditions have increasingly become a priority for unions and their workers.

“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.”

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 aggressively cut costs everywhere and shifted its operations to rely more on fewer, longer trains that use fewer locomotives 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.

Unions had an advantage at the bargaining table because of the tight labor market and ongoing service problems on the railroads, Chen said.

Shippers have complained loudly this year about delays and poor service as railroads struggled to hire quickly enough to handle a surge in demand as the economy emerged from the pandemic. The shipping problems gave rail workers extra leverage.

Newly hired CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs said he hopes the new deal helps the railroad hire and retain more employees to address the service problems.

“Now we can move our conversation into how do we work together to grow the business and better serve our customers,” he said.

Union activism has surged under Biden, as seen in a 56% increase in petitions for union representation with the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year, including prominent organizing efforts at Starbucks, Amazon and other companies.

Before the deal was reached, business groups including the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicted that a rail strike would be an “economic disaster.”

The Association of American Railroads trade group estimated that a strike would cost the economy more than $2 billion a day and force many businesses to scale back or cease production and consider layoffs.

With the economy still recovering from the pandemic’s supply chain disruptions, the president’s goal was to keep all parties talking so a deal could be reached.

Biden also knew a stoppage could worsen the dynamics that fueled soaring inflation and created a political headache for the party in power.

He confronted the same kind of predicament faced by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel — how does a president balance the needs of labor and business in doing what’s best for the nation?

Railways were so important during World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the industry to keep goods flowing and prevent strikes.

So the administration jumped into the middle of the talks. Biden and cabinet officials called both sides, and the labor secretary participated directly in 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. Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson in New York City contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age and Competition, ...

Associated Press

US, Europe working on voluntary AI code of conduct as calls grow for regulation

The United States and Europe are drawing up a voluntary code of conduct for artificial intelligence as the developing technology triggers warnings

15 hours ago

FILE - Idaho Attorney General candidate Rep. Raul Labrador speaks during the Idaho Republican Party...

Associated Press

Families sue to block Idaho law barring gender-affirming care for minors

The families of two transgender teenagers filed a lawsuit Thursday to block enforcement of Idaho's ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors.

2 days ago

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission alleg...

Associated Press

Amazon fined $25M for violating child privacy with Alexa

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations it violated a child privacy law

2 days ago

FILE - Candles are lit on a memorial wall during an anniversary memorial service at the Holy Trinit...

Associated Press

Pain and terror felt by passengers before Boeing Max crashed can be considered, judge rules

Families of passengers who died in the crash of a Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia can seek damages for the pain and terror suffered by victims in the minutes before the plane flew nose-down into the ground, a federal judge has ruled.

3 days ago

OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and creator of OpenAI speaks at University College ...

Associated Press

Artificial intelligence threatens extinction, experts say in new warning

Scientists and tech industry leaders issued a new warning Tuesday about the perils that artificial intelligence poses to humankind.

3 days ago

Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission alleg...

Associated Press

Hundreds of Amazon workers protest company’s climate impact, return-to-office mandate

SEATTLE (AP) — Telling executives to “strive harder,” hundreds of corporate Amazon workers protested what they decried as the company’s lack of progress on climate goals and an inequitable return-to-office mandate during a lunchtime demonstration at its Seattle headquarters Wednesday. The protest came a week after Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting and a month after a […]

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Men's Health Month...

Men’s Health Month: Why It’s Important to Speak About Your Health

June is Men’s Health Month, with the goal to raise awareness about men’s health and to encourage men to speak about their health.

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Tentative labor deal averts threat of nationwide rail strike