Railroad strike averted: With tentative deal, Metra trains will run as scheduled

The tentative labor agreement averts a strike that could have been devastating to the economy before the midterm elections.

SHARE Railroad strike averted: With tentative deal, Metra trains will run as scheduled
An Amtrak train bound for Chicago.

An Amtrak train bound for Chicago.

Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Rail companies and their workers reached a tentative agreement Thursday to avert a nationwide strike that could have shut down the nation’s freight trains and devastated the economy less than two months before the midterm elections.

President Joe Biden announced the deal, which emerged from a marathon 20-hour negotiating session at the Labor Department and came just one day before the threatened walkout.

“This agreement is validation of what I’ve always believed — unions and management can work together ... for the benefit of everyone,” Biden said at the White House.

The deal, which includes a 24% pay raise, will go to union members for a vote after a cooling-off period of several weeks.

Had a strike started Friday, it could have shut down rail lines across the country.

Biden made a key phone call to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at 9 p.m. Wednesday as the talks continued after an Italian dinner, according to a White House official insisting on anonymity. The president told the negotiators to consider the harm to families, farmers and businesses if a shutdown occurred.

What resulted from the back-and-forth was a tentative agreement that will go to union members for a vote after a post-ratification cooling-off period of several weeks.

“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions and peace of mind around their health care costs, all hard-earned,” Biden said. “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.”

In the Chicago area, Metra was on the brink of canceling some of its busiest lines Thursday evening, but the agreement reached between freight railroad workers and their bosses means services will run uninterrupted.

“We are happy to report that in the overnight hours a tentative agreement was reached between freight railroads and their unions, averting a strike that could have started tonight and halted service on the BNSF and three Union Pacific lines,” Metra said in a statement. “We are greatly relieved that we will be able to continue to provide the safe and reliable service that you deserve and that you rely upon.”

Amtrak also had begun canceling long-distance trains out of Chicago earlier this week, and by Thursday, all its long-distance trains across the country were suspended.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said the tentative agreement “will keep our trains moving, stations bustling and employees proudly serving customers as we move them across this great country.”

“Railroads play a vital role in the nation, and we thank President Biden, Secretaries Buttigieg, Walsh and Vilsack, the major freight railroads and rail labor unions for their hard work and commitment to get this deal done,” Gardner said.

Amtrak is still working to restore the services to the trains it preemptively canceled, and customers impacted from suspended services will be accommodated on first available departures.

While neither Metra nor Amtrak were involved in negotiations, many of the tracks they use are either owned or operated by freight railroad companies.

The threat of a shutdown had put Biden in a delicate spot politically. The Democratic president believes unions built the middle class, but he also knew a rail worker strike could damage the economy before the midterm elections, when majorities in both chambers of Congress, key governorships and scores of important state offices will be up for grabs.

That left him in an awkward position Wednesday. He flew to Detroit, a stalwart of the labor movement, to espouse the virtues of unionization, while members of his administration went all out to keep talks going in Washington between the railroads and union workers.

As the administration was trying to forge peace, United Auto Workers Local 598 member Ryan Buchalski introduced Biden at the Detroit Auto Show on Wednesday as “the most union- and labor-friendly president in American history” and someone who was “kickin’ ass for the working class.”

Buchalski harked back to the pivotal sit-down strikes by autoworkers in the 1930s.

In the speech that followed, Biden acknowledged he wouldn’t be in the White House without the support of unions such as the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, saying autoworkers “brung me to the dance.”

And without a deal among the 12 unions in talks back in Washington, Biden also knew a stoppage might have begun as early as Friday that could have halted shipments of food and fuel at a cost of $2 billion a day.

Far more was at stake than sick leave and salary bumps for 115,000 unionized railroad workers. The ramifications could have extended to control of Congress and to the shipping network that keeps factories rolling, stocks the shelves of stores and stitches the U.S. together as an economic power.

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

Biden faced the same kind of predicament as Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel. How do you balance the needs of labor and business in doing what’s best for the nation? Railways 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 don’t see a contradiction between Biden’s devotion to unions and his desire to avoid a strike. Union activism has surged under Biden, as seen in a 56% increase in petitions for union representation with the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year.

One person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about White House deliberations on the matter, said Biden’s mindset in approaching the debate was that he’s the president of the entire country, not just for organized labor.

With the economy still recovering from the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, the president’s goal was to keep all parties talking so a deal could be reached. The anonymous source said the White House saw a commitment to keep negotiating in good faith as the best way to avoid a shutdown while exercising the principles of collective bargaining that Biden holds dear.

Biden also knew a stoppage could worsen the dynamics that have contributed to soaring inflation and created a political headache for the party in power.

Eddie Vale, a Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications aide, said the White House pursued the correct approach at a perilous moment.

“No one wants a railroad strike, not the companies, not the workers, not the White House,” he said. “No one wants it this close to the election.”

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

Sensing political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to pass a law to impose contract terms on the unions and railroad companies to avoid a shutdown. Democrats, who control both chambers in Congress, blocked it.

“If a strike occurs and paralyzes food, fertilizer and energy shipments nationwide, it will be because Democrats blocked this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

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 Wednesday.

“We’ve been experiencing a lot of headwinds from supply chain problems since the pandemic started, and those problems would be geometrically magnified,” Josh Bolten, the group’s CEO, told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants around the country that likely have to shut down. ... There are critical products to keep our water clean.”

The roundtable also had a meeting of its board of directors Wednesday. But Bolten said Lance Fritz, chair of the board’s international committee and the CEO of Union Pacific railroad, would miss it “because he’s working hard trying to bring the strike to a resolution.”

By 5:05 a.m. Thursday, it was clear the hard work across the government, unions and railway companied had paid off as Biden announced the deal, calling it “an important win for our economy and the American people.”

Contributing: Manny Ramos

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