WASHINGTON, D.C., Sept. 15 (UPI) — President Joe Biden said on Thursday that a new labor agreement has been reached between railroads and thousands of rail workers, averting a strike that could have halted trains nationwide and harmed the economy.
The White House announced the tentative agreement, which followed marathon negotiations on Wednesday intended to prevent rail workers from walking off the job beginning Friday.
Negotiators for both sides met for talks at the Labor Department in Washington and spent about 20 hours moving toward a new agreement for better working conditions.
The deadline to come up with an agreement between dozens of railroads and the unions that make up the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition was Friday. The coalition represents more than 100,000 rail workers and rail freight across the United States would cease if they walk.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has been involved in helping the negotiations along and the White House got involved in the labor dispute this week.
“It is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the [COVID-19] pandemic to ensure that America’s families and communities got deliveries of what has kept us going during these difficult years,” Biden, an avid train rider during his days as a U.S. senator, said in a statement Thursday.
“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned. 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.”
Biden had made a phone call to Walsh late on Wednesday and urged him to underscore the harm to the economy, families and businesses that a strike would bring. It was estimated previously that the strike would have cost the domestic economy a whopping $2 billion per day.
The National Carriers Conference Committee represents management at over 30 railroads and the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition is made up of a dozen rail labor unions. Five of them — smaller unions representing 21,000 workers — had previously reached new agreements with the railroads.
The remaining unions continued to move toward the deadline Friday without a deal. The greatest issues at the center of the dispute involved working conditions and rules that force engineers and conductors to be on call to work seven days a week. Two unions representing conductors and engineers were holding out for more paid sick time and other improved conditions.
In the end, negotiators on both sides arrived at what they felt was a fair deal.
“As a result, we will keep Americans on the job in all the industries in this country that are touched by this vital industry,” Biden said.
“The hard work done to reach this tentative agreement means that our economy can avert the significant damage any shutdown would have brought. With unemployment still near record lows and signs of progress in lowering costs, tonight’s agreement allows us to continue to fight for long term economic growth that finally works for working families.”
Thursday’s deal came after Amtrak, the nation’s largest passenger rail company, announced that it had canceled all long-distance trains nationwide due to the looming strike. The strike concerned freight rail operations, but the logistics of the U.S. rail system and the role of rail workers meant that passenger service would also be disrupted by a walkout.
One of the unions, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 19, had said earlier on Wednesday that its members rejected a “tentative agreement” and authorized a strike. It wasn’t clear on Thursday if that remains to be the case, or whether the deal announced by the White House includes the support of the IAM.
Allowing a strike to shut down the nation’s rails likely would have been catastrophic politically for Biden, who has long been a union supporter, and for Democrats looking to keep control of Congress in the November midterm elections.