Biden says ‘tentative’ deal reached to avert rail strike

The White House on Thursday morning announced it had reached a “tentative” agreement to avert a national rail strike that had threatened the nation’s economy.

President Biden said in a statement that the agreement would guarantee “better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs” for the workers.

The tentative deal – confirmed by group representing freight rail operators – still faces several steps before it is formally ratified. The unions must still vote on it, but the White House’s blessing of the new terms suggests that the worker groups have been closely involved. Often, the next step of the process can take several weeks, but during that time union members agree not to strike.
Importantly, it was unclear if the deal includes guaranteed sick leave, the workers’ top demand. Thursday morning statements from rail companies and the White House did not mention it as part of their announcements of a deal.

Negotiators had until Friday at 12:01 a.m. to reach a deal to avoid a major impact to the economy. Tens of thousands of jobs could have been impacted, potentially snarling the shipment of freight and the movement of commuter trains all over the country.

As the deadline neared, negotiations shifted to Washington, where rail executives and labor leaders met at the Labor Department with Secretary Marty Walsh. Biden remained closely involved in the talks, and phoned Walsh and the negotiators at 9 p.m. on Wednesday night to encourage them to secure the tentative pact, said a person briefed on the discussions who was not authorized to talk to the media.

The implications of a rail strike could have been monumental, snarling the movement of goods and potentially leading to massive layoffs. Large parts of the nation’s economy move through the rail system. And the disruption on commuter trains also would have been felt across the country. Strikes were planned in a number of major cities, including Stockton, Calif., Cleveland, and Baltimore. This could have caused major supply chain disruptions, driving up prices on a range of goods during a period of high inflation.

The political consequences of a rail strike less than two months before the midterm elections also could have been enormous for Democrats, who could have been blamed for not securing a deal. Biden was involved in the talks all week as were three of his cabinet secretaries, his top economic adviser, and his chief of staff.

Rail operators had even begun preparing for a strike before the Friday deadline. Amtrak was beginning to suspend long-distance rail service and some freight operations were also being halted. It was unclear how quickly those operations might resume based on the tentative deal.

A Department of Labor official confirmed that a deal “that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy” was reached in the early hours of the morning on Thursday after 20 consecutive hours of negotiations between rail companies and union negotiators.