Thanks to marathon talks lasting 20 hours through the night of September 14, representatives of the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, representing the nation’s leading railroads, and a collection of 12 unions representing more than 140,000 rail workers have managed to temporarily avert what could have been a rail strike that would have been disastrous for farmers, businesses and consumers. A tentative agreement was reached though the personal intervention of Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and a phone call to the negotiators from President Joe Biden urging a settlement.
Tensions over pay and work rules had been the subject of negotiations going back at least two years. On July 15, Biden appointed a three-member presidential emergency board to develop a set of non-binding recommendations by August 16 for the parties to consider. After the recommendations were released, the two parties had 30 days to accept the recommendations, arrive at a different agreement or temporarily extend the current contract. Prior to September 16, any strike or lockout was prohibited by law. But agreement wasn’t reached until the last-minute intervention.
The board recommended a 24 percent wage increase for railroad workers over five years, midway between the railroads’ proposed 17 percent wage increase over five years and the unions’ proposed 31.3 percent increase over five years. The recommendations also included adjustments to health care premiums and changes to rules about time off and availability, a key demand of engineers and conductors, especially.
The looming strike had already affected rail traffic, as Amtrak halted cross-country traffic to anticipate the strike, and some railroads stopped accepting hazardous or time-sensitive cargoes.
Rail moves close to 40 percent of the U.S.’s long-distance trade. A rail strike could have cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, according to the American Association of Railroads. It might not have directly affected barge cargoes per se; generally, cargoes that can move by barge are already doing so. Barge and rail companies are no longer bitter rivals as they once were. Instead, the two modes now work together in an integrated transportation system.
The strike threat has been postponed but not completely removed. Union members still have to vote on the new agreement. But as harvest kicks into full gear, we can be relieved that the parties found their way to an agreement.