Negotiators representing American railroad workers have reached an agreement with the nation’s biggest railways on a new contract that will keep the nation’s railways open and avoid a strike that could have raised prices and hurt the economy, President Joe Biden announced in a statement early this morning.
“The tentative agreement reached tonight is an important win for our economy and the American people,” said the President, who later delivered remarks praising the deal at the White House. “It is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to ensure that America’s families and communities got deliveries of what have kept us going during these difficult years. 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.”
“I thank the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith and reaching a tentative agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy.
“I am grateful for the hard work that Secretaries Walsh, Buttigieg, and Vilsack, and NEC Director Deese put into reaching this tentative agreement.”
“I especially want to thank Secretary Walsh for his tireless, around-the-clock efforts that delivered a win for the hard working people of the US rail industry: as a result, we will keep Americans on the job in all the industries in this country that are touched by this vital industry.”
“For the American people, 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.”
Jeremy Ferguson, President of the SMART Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, joined Dennis Pierce, the President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, in a statement explaining what the workers had agreed to.
“Early this morning following nearly three years of bargaining, [our unions] reached a tentative National Agreement with the nation’s largest freight rail carriers which includes wage increases, bonuses, and no increases to insurance copays and deductibles,” they said in the opening comments of their release.
“For the first time our Unions were able to obtain negotiated contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies. Our Unions will now begin the process of submitting the tentative agreement to the rank and file for a ratification vote by the memberships of both unions.”
“The tentative agreement calls for an immediate wage increase of 14% once compounded with an additional 4% on July 1, 2023, and 4.5% on July 1, 2024. In addition, wage increases of 3% effective July 1, 2020, 3.5% effective July 1, 2021, and 7% effective July 1, 2022, will be fully retroactive, for a compounded increase of 24% over the 5‑year term of the agreement. The agreement also includes annual lump-sum bonus payments totaling $5,000.”
“The parties’ Health and Welfare Plan point-of-service costs will remain unchanged; there will be no increases to copays or deductibles and there are no disruptions to the existing health care networks. After over twenty hours of negotiations, we were able to reach an agreement that freezes our members’ monthly health care contributions at the end of the agreement.”
“No additional increases will apply to our monthly contributions while the parties bargain over the next National Agreement.”
Time off for medical appointments had been a big sticking point in the stalled negotiations, but that was overcome. The unions’ breakthroughs came just in time to avert a strike, but probably could have come much sooner if a mediation board hadn’t sided with the railroads earlier this summer.
Nevertheless, the tentative agreement is a big win for the Biden-Harris administration, which intervened in the negotiations and made delivering a deal a top priority. It shows what can be accomplished when true friends of workers serve in the executive branch, like President Biden and Secretary Walsh.
Business organizations are also thrilled. The possibility of freight railroad disruptions was a big headache that retailers and other businesses were dreading. “We are relieved,” said a statement by the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad, immediately began scrambling to reverse its plans to temporarily scrap all long distance service, a move prompted by the looming possibility of a strike. (Amtrak’s own workers were not threatening to strike, but Amtrak’s long distance routes and many shorter distance ones operate on railroads owned and operated by freight railroad companies such as Union Pacific or Burlington Northern Santa Fe / BNSF.)
“Amtrak is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out directly to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures. Bookmark Amtrak.com/alerts for the latest updates,” Amtrak advised.
A strike would also have interrupted Sounder commuter rail service in the Central Puget Sound region of Washington State, as Sound Transit explained yesterday.
“In the event of a national rail strike, Sounder commuter rail service between Everett and Lakewood and Seattle would be canceled beginning Friday, September 16th until workers return, the agency said.
“Sounder will operate regular service on Thursday, September 15th.”
“Sounder trains are operated by unionized BNSF Railways employees under contract on tracks owned by BNSF. Sounder trains are also dispatched by BNSF employees affected by a potential strike.”
Members of Congress were also happy to see the deal struck.
“This tentative agreement is an important milestone to prevent a stoppage and keep our railways and our economy running,” said Senator Patty Murray.
“I’m grateful for the hard work President Biden, Secretary Walsh, Secretary Buttigieg, Chairman Puchala, the rail unions, and carriers put in to stay at the table, negotiate in good faith, and help reach this agreement.”
“The agreement would not only deliver rail workers better pay, benefits, and working conditions, but also support rail companies by strengthening our freight rail workforce. This is a win for rail workers and our entire economy.”
“It’s critical that we have a working freight system to move 95 million tons of goods in Washington annually, including grain and other products grown and manufactured in the state. I am glad that President Biden helped broker a deal between business and labor that will continue to invest in keeping and skilling a workforce for tomorrow with the right benefits,” said Senator Maria Cantwell.
We at NPI are very happy that the railway workers were able to secure new language to enable them to take unpaid time off for medical appointments without a penalty, in addition to pay increases and protection from rising healthcare costs. They stood in solidarity for a better deal and prevailed — to not only their own benefit, but the benefit of the labor movement and the country.