Tentative Deal is Reached and the Rail Strike Avoided

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    On Thursday, President Joe Biden said that a possible railway labor agreement has been reached, avoiding a strike that could have been terrible for the economy before the midterm elections that are of crucial importance.

    Railroads and union officials were in talks at the Labor Department for over 20 hours on Wednesday to come to a consensus in the event of a possible strike beginning on Friday which could cause the closure of railroad lines throughout the country.

    Biden had a critical phone call with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at 9 p.m. while negotiations were in progress after an Italian dinner was delivered, according to an official from the White House who spoke to The Associated Press on the terms of anonymity to discuss closed talks. Biden instructed negotiators that they should consider the potential harm to farmers, families, and business in the event of a shutdown.

    What came out of the exchange of ideas was a tentative agreement which will be put to the union members to vote following a cooling-off period that lasts for some weeks.

    “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.”

    The strike would disrupted passenger travel and freight rail lines since Amtrak and a lot of commuter railroads run on tracks owned by freight railroads. Amtrak had already cancelled some of the long-distance trains earlier this week, and announced that the remaining long-distance trains would be stopped before the strike deadline.

    In the wake of the tentative agreement, Amtrak stated that they were “working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures.”

    The five-year agreement that is retroactive to 2020 includes 24% raises as well as a bonus of $5,000, which a Presidential Emergency Board recommended this summer. Railroads also agreed to relax their strict attendance policy in order to address unions' concerns over working conditions.

    Railroad employees will be able to take unpaid days off to attend medical appointments, without being penalized according to the rules for attendance. In the past, employees would lose points as a result of the attendance system that the BNSF and Union Pacific railways had adopted and could be punished if they were to lose all points.

    The unions that represent conductors and engineers driving the trains have pushed to change the attendance rules. They believe this agreement sets an example that they will be able to negotiate the same guidelines in the coming years. But the workers will need to decide if the changes are sufficient to pass the agreement.

    The possibility of a shutdown put Biden in a precarious position politically. Biden, as a Democrat, believes that unions helped build the middle-class, however he realized that a strike of rail workers could be detrimental to the economy before the midterm elections, in which majorities in both chambers of Congress, governorships, and a variety of important offices in the state are up for grabs.

    This put him in an awkward situation on Wednesday. A flight took him to Detroit to speak to ardent supporters of the labor movement to advocate for unionization. Meanwhile, officials from his administration were on the frontline to keep discussions taking place in Washington between rail companies and the unionized laborers.

    As the administration was trying to reach an agreement, United Auto Workers Local 598 member Ryan Buchalski introduced Biden at the Detroit auto show as “the most union- and labor-friendly president in American history” and as someone that was “kickin' ass for the working class.” Buchalski reminded them about the crucial sit-down strikes of autoworkers during the 1930s.

    In his speech, Biden recognized that he would not be in the White House without the support of unions like the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, claiming the autoworkers “brung me to the dance.”

    However, without a consensus among the twelve unions participating in talks earlier at Washington, Biden also knew that a strike could stop the transportation of fuel and food at the cost of 2 billion dollars a day.

    There was more at stake than sick time and raises in wages for 115,000 unionized railroad workers. The implications could have extended to the control of Congress and the transportation network that keeps factories moving, stocks shelves of retail stores, and ties all the U.S. together as an economic power.

    White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who was speaking on Air Force One as it took off for Detroit, spoke of the strike of rail workers is “an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people.”

    Biden had to face the same kind of situation as Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal, and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel. How do you reconcile the demands of business and labor while doing what is best for the country? Railroads were so crucial in World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the sector to make sure that the flow of goods continued and to stop strikes.

    The rise in union activism under, Biden as evident in the 56 percent increase in union representation petitions before the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year.

    The economy is still recovering from the disruptions in supply chains caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The president's objective was to hold all parties involved so that a settlement could be struck. Biden was also aware that a halt could exacerbate the issues that led to the escalating inflation and caused problems for the ruling party.

    Eddie Vale, a Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications assistant, said it was clear that the White House pursued the correct strategy at a crucial time.

    “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.”

    With an evident political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to approve a bill to enforce contract terms on railroad companies and unions in order to avoid a government shutdown. Democrats in control of both the chambers of Congress opposed it.

    The economic implications of a possible strike was not missed by members of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based organization that represents CEOs. It released its quarterly outlook on the economy on Wednesday.

    “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.”

    By 5:05 a.m. Thursday morning, it was clear that the negotiations between the unions, government, and railroad companies was paying off when Biden made the announcement and called the deal “an important win for our economy and the American people.”

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