A BNSF freight train passing through Shoreline
A BNSF freight train passes through Shoreline on tracks adjacent to Richmond Beach Saltwater Park (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts