After negotiations brokered late at night by the labor secretary, President Biden announced the agreement.
WASHINGTON — After all-night talks brokered late Thursday night by Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh and freight rail companies, unions representing tens or thousands of workers came to a tentative agreement in order to avoid an economically devastating strike.
Now, the agreement will be sent to union members for a vote on ratification. This is standard procedure in labor negotiations. Workers have agreed to not strike while the vote is being tallied.
The talks, which Mr. Walsh brokered, began Wednesday morning and lasted for 20 hours. According to a source familiar with the talks, Mr. Biden called Wednesday night at 9 p.m. and on Thursday he celebrated the agreement in a lengthy statement.
Mr. Biden stated that the tentative agreement reached tonight was an important win for America’s economy and people. It is a win to the tens of thousand of rail workers who worked tirelessly during the pandemic in order to make sure that America’s communities and families received their essential goods.
Rail passengers felt the impact of the announcement quickly. Amtrak announced that it had canceled all long-distance passenger train services to avoid people being stranded in the event of a strike at freight rails.
Talks had been stalled by a push for companies that improve working conditions. This included allowing workers to take paid leave to see physicians. Labor unions claimed that the agreement gives workers this ability. It also allows them to take unpaid leave to visit doctors.
“Most importantly, the agreement allows our members to take time off from work to attend routine and preventive medical as well as exemptions to attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgery,” said the presidents of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and Transportation Division of International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers in a press release.
Dennis Pierce, the engineer and trainman president, and Jeremy Ferguson, the transportation division’s president, said that the agreement will freeze workers’ monthly health care contributions once it expires. This will ensure that those costs do not rise during the next round contract negotiations.
In his morning statement, Mr. Biden stated that rail workers would receive better wages, better working conditions, and peace-of-mind around their health care expenses. The agreement is also a win for railroad companies, who will be able retain and recruit more workers in an industry that will remain the backbone for the American economy for many decades to come.
Association of American Railroads, a trade group, thanked Mr. Walsh, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for their help in bringing the deal together.
“Thanks for the dedication of all member in the collective bargaining process,” said the association in a news release. “These new contracts provide rail employees with a 24 percent wage rise during the five-year period 2020-2024 including an immediate payout of $11,000 upon ratification.”
Union Pacific, a rail carrier praised the agreement. The company released a statement saying that it looked forward to unions ratifying the agreements and working with employees, while focusing on the restoration of supply chain fluidity.
On Twitter , Mr. Walsh stated that the agreement “balances workers’ needs, businesses and the nation’s economy.”
In a follow-up tweet he stated that “our rail system is integrally to our supply chain” and “a disruption would have had catastrophic effects on industries, travelers, families, and all of the country.”
In an effort to avoid a shutdown that could have prevented the distribution of critical goods, such as food, water treatment chemicals, and other essential goods, Mr. Biden and his economic group had been increasingly inserting themselves into the talks over the last week. This could have led to consumer prices rising and further inflated the inflation rate, which reached an all-time high of 42% this summer.
The freight rail industry and unions were in negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline. Federally-imposed “cooling off periods” had to be over by Friday. Workers would still have the right to strike if there was no agreement. This possibility had already shaken both passenger and freight rail companies.
Nearly three quarters of U.S. freight is transported by rail, just behind trucking. According to the Association of American Railroads , a national rail service disruption would have caused more than 7,000 train delays each day and cost more than $2 billion per day.
Last week, railroads warned their customers that they would cut back certain services in preparation for a strike. Union Pacific, CSX, and BNSF said they would start securing hazardous materials and toxic materials Monday to make sure that no dangerous goods are left unguarded in case of a strike. On Tuesday, Norfolk Southern shut down shipping containers that were being loaded onto trucks and ships. stated it would close its entire network at midnight on Thursday.
Administrators had already begun to prepare contingency plans in order to minimize disruptions of critical shipments in the case of a strike. These plans involved working with ocean shippers, trucking companies and other transportation options to ensure that some supplies would still reach their destinations.