Tentative rail labor agreement reached that averted strike, says President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden said Thursday that a tentative rail labor deal has been reached, averting a strike that could have been devastating to the economy ahead of crucial midterm elections.

Railroad and union representatives had been in negotiations for 20 hours at the Labor Department on Wednesday to reach an agreement, as there was a risk of a strike from Friday that could have shut down rail lines across the country.

Biden made a key phone call to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at 9 p.m. as talks continued after the Italian dinner was brought in, according to a White House official who insisted on anonymity. The president told negotiators to consider the damage to families, farmers and businesses if a shutdown were to occur.

What resulted from the back-and-forth was a tentative agreement to be put to a vote by union members after a post-ratification cooling-off period of several weeks.

“These rail workers will get better wages, better working conditions and peace of mind about their health care costs – all hard-earned,” Biden said. “The deal is also a victory for rail companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will remain part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.”

The threat of a shutdown had put Biden in a sticky political spot. The Democratic president believes that unions built the middle class, but he also knew that a strike by rail workers could hurt the economy ahead of midterm elections, when majorities in both houses of Congress, key governorships and many important state officials will be in contention. play.

That left him in an awkward position on Wednesday. He flew to Detroit, a stronghold of the labor movement, to defend the virtues of unionization, while members of his administration did their best to keep talks in Washington between the railroads and unionized workers.

As the administration tried to forge peace, Ryan Buchalski, a member of the United Auto Workers Local 598, introduced Biden at the Detroit auto show on Wednesday as “the most pro-union, pro-worker president in American history.” and someone who was “kicking ass for the working class.” Buchalski harkened back to the pivotal sit-down strikes of autoworkers in the 1930s.

In the speech that followed, Biden acknowledged that he would not be in the White House without the support of unions like the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, saying that autoworkers “took me to the dance.”

But without an agreement among the 12 unions in talks in Washington, Biden also knew a strike could have begun on Friday that could halt food and fuel shipments at a cost of $2 billion a day.

Much more was at stake than sick leave and pay raises for 115,000 unionized rail workers. The ramifications could have extended to control of Congress and the shipping network that keeps factories running, stocks store shelves and unites the United States as an economic powerhouse.

That’s why White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking aboard Air Force One as it flew to Detroit on Wednesday, said a strike by rail workers was “an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the people.” American”. Rail lines and their workers’ representatives “must stay at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement,” she said.

Biden faced the same kind of situation that Theodore Roosevelt faced in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel: how do you balance labor and business needs to do what’s best for the nation? Railroads were so important during World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the industry to keep goods flowing and prevent strikes.

Inside the White House, aides see no contradiction between Biden’s devotion to unions and his desire to avoid a strike. Union activism has increased under Biden, as seen in a 56% increase in petitions for union representation before the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year.

A person familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss White House deliberations on the issue, said Biden’s mindset in approaching the debate was that he is the president of the entire country, not just of work. organized.

With the economy still recovering from supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s goal was to keep all sides together so he could reach a deal. The person said the White House viewed a commitment to continue negotiating in good faith as the best way to avoid a shutdown while exercising collective bargaining principles that Biden holds dear.

Biden also knew that a walkout could worsen the dynamic that has contributed to rising inflation and created a political headache for the party in power.

Eddie Vale, a Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications assistant, said the White House followed the right approach at a dangerous time.

“No one wants a rail strike, not the companies, not the workers, not the White House,” he said. “Nobody wants it this close to the election.”

Vale added that the sticking point in the talks was about “basically respect: sick leave and bereavement leave,” issues that Biden has supported in speeches and with his policy proposals.

Sensing a political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to pass legislation to impose contract terms on unions and rail companies to prevent a lockout. Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, blocked it.

“If a strike happens and shuts down food, fertilizer and energy shipments across the country, it will be because Democrats blocked this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

The economic impact of a potential strike was not lost on members of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group that represents CEOs. It issued its quarterly outlook for the economy on Wednesday.

“We’ve been experiencing a lot of headwinds from supply chain issues since the pandemic started and those issues would be magnified geometrically,” Josh Bolten, chief executive of the group, told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants all over the country that probably have to close. … There are critical products to keep our water clean.”

The roundtable also had a meeting of its board of directors on Wednesday. But Bolten said Lance Fritz, chairman of the board’s international committee and chief executive of the Union Pacific Railroad, would miss him “because he’s working hard to resolve the strike.”

At 5:05 a.m. Thursday, it was clear that the hard work of the government, the unions and the railroad company had paid off when Biden announced the deal, calling it “an important victory for our economy and the American people.”

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