Negotiators had until Friday at 12:01 am to reach a deal to avoid a major impact to the economy. Tens of thousands of jobs could have been impacted, potentially snarling the shipment of freight and the movement of commuter trains all over the country.
As the deadline loomed, companies had already begun preparing to stop services on Thursday. Amtrak was beginning to suspend long-distance rail service and some freight operations were also being halted. It was unclear how quickly those operations might resume based on the tentative deal.
A Department of Labor official confirmed that a deal “that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy” was reached in the early hours of the morning on Thursday after 20 consecutive hours of negotiations between rail companies and union negotiators.
“Secretary Walsh and the Biden administration applaud all parties for reaching this hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal,” a labor official said. “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.”
At issue were the rail carriers’ attendance policies, which drivers and engineers said punish them and put them at risk of termination for attending routine doctor’s visits and family emergencies. Two of the largest and most politically powerful unions representing railroad workers said they would strike if the carriers did not allow them to call out of work. The impasse over this issue ran right up to the deadline.
Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute, following two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions that represent 115,000 railroad workers that had reached an impasse. The emergency board’s proposal included a 24 percent wage increase by 2024 and larger bonuses, but did not address workers’ concerns with the carriers’ attendance policies.
Health care costs were also a point of contention between unions and railway carriers. The carriers had proposed lifting a cap on workers’ health care premiums.
“This round of bargaining is not about [wages],” said Jared Cassity, a driver and the national legislative director at SMART Transportation Division, one of the unions that reached a tentative deal. “It’s about absentee policies and the ability of folks to receive preventive care without retribution. People are getting fired for going to the doctor even with documentation from doctors.”
The details of the tentative agreement reached on Thursday morning have not been shared, and could still be voted down by members who need to ratify the agreement to settle the matter.
Earlier this week, two unions rejected proposed tentative agreements brokered by labor leaders, indicating broader anger among union members about the deal proposed by Biden’s board.
The tentative deal caps a frenzy of work at the highest levels of the US government to prevent a strike that would have significantly disrupted the nation’s supply chains.
Biden faced pressure in recent days to ensure the strike was avoided while not undercutting the union workers who have vowed to defend as president.
White House aides had prepared contingency plans aimed at protecting the nation’s drinking and energy systems in case of an emergency.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.