(CNN) — Unions and management reached a tentative deal early Thursday, averting a freight railroad strike that had threatened to cripple US supply chains and push prices higher for many goods.
The deal with unions representing more than 50,000 engineers and conductors was announced just after 5 a.m. ET in a statement from the White House, which called it “an important win for our economy and the American people.”
It came after 20 hours of talks between the unions’ leadership and the railroads’ labor negotiators hosted by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. They began their meeting Wednesday morning with the clock ticking down to a strike that had been set to start at 12:01 am ET on Friday.
President Joe Biden called in personally to talk to negotiators around 9 pm ET Wednesday, according to a person familiar with negotiations. Biden stressed that catastrophic harm could come to families, businesses and communities if the rail system shut down.
The agreement does not mean the threat of a strike has gone away entirely. The deal needs to be ratified by union members. But it’s good news for a wide range of businesses that depend upon the freight railroads to continue to operate, and for the wider US economy. About 30% of the nation’s freight moves by rail.
A win for workers, railroads and the economy
The deal gives the union members an immediate 14% raise with back pay dating back to 2020, and raises totaling 24% during the five-year life of the contract, that runs from 2020 through 2024. It also gives them cash bonuses of $1,000 a year.
Few other details of the deal have so far been made public. But the statement from Biden indicated that the major issue that had brought the country within a day of its first national rail strike in 30 years had been addressed in the unions’ favor.
“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,” said Biden in a statement. “These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned.”
The dispute was about staffing shortages and scheduling rules that union leaders said had brought their membership to a breaking point. The unions say the railroads have been requiring their members to be “on call” and ready to report to work on short notice as often as seven days a week. Leadership of the two unions had said their members would not accept a contract without changes to those work rules.
Biden described the deal as “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.”
It is an important victory for Biden, who faced nothing but bad choices if a deal had not been reached. Backing Congressional action sought by the business community to impose a contract on workers would have angered his supporters among the unions. Letting the work stoppage play out risked massive economic consequences just ahead of the midterm elections.
How we got here
Railroad workers are governed by a different labor law than most workers, one that limits their freedom to strike and allows for more governmental intervention. In July, Biden issued an order that prevented a strike at that time and created a panel, known as a Presidential Emergency Board, to try to find a solution to the dispute.
It also imposed a 60-day cooling off period during which the unions could not strike and management could not lock out workers. That cooling off period was due to end early Friday.
Biden could not have ordered the railroads to keep operating once the cooling off period ended Friday. Only Congress could have acted to get the unions back to work if a strike had begun.
With a wide range of business groups calling on Congress to act, Republicans had prepared legislation that would have given railroad management the deal they wanted. But Democrats were opposed to taking such action.
A union source said that Democrats’ refusal to side with management had been a key to the talks.
“Senate leaderership not acting gave space for these negotiations,” said the union source. He said that Walsh had “hung in” with the union during the negotiations.
“it was a slog yesterday,” he said, with lots of back and forth.
“Our people were not going to give up,” said the source. “Our people would have gone on strike” if a deal was not reached by the Friday deadline.
The Association of American Railroads also praised the deal and thanked the Biden administration, as well as the unions themselves, for their role in reaching an agreement.
The pay raises and bonuses had been recommended by a presidential panel charged with trying to find a solution to the impasse in negotiations at that time.
Those terms were lucrative enough for most of the rail unions to agree to tentative deals in recent weeks, the engineers and conductors, who were faced with work and scheduling rules that did not apply to others, refused to sign on without relief on the scheduling issue.
Shares of the major freight railroads — Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern — were between 1% and 3% higher in premarket trading on the news. Shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns the fourth national freight railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, was narrowly higher as well.