What you need to know about railway agreements

The Biden administration narrowly averted an infrastructure disaster on Thursday by striking a tentative contract agreement between railroads and their workers, keeping the nation’s rail system intact.

The breakthrough comes after years of contentious negotiations and before nearly 125,000 rail workers are set to strike as soon as Friday. Workers will now choose whether to ratify the contract.

Here are five things to know about rail deals:

Unions secure hard-fought concessions

The agreement aims to address rail workers’ concerns about unsafe working conditions and barriers to taking time off, the two largest railroad unions said Thursday.

The contract would allow workers to take time off for doctor’s appointments or other scheduled events without being penalized under the railroad’s attendance policy, a key point in the negotiations. Workers complain that they often face roadblocks to taking unpaid time off for whatever reason.

It will mandate two-person crews, another victory for workers who have warned of the dangerous consequences of forcing workers to operate solo trains.

The deal also puts a new cap on workers’ health care costs, the union said.

“We are listening when our members say that the final agreement will require improvements in quality of life and economic benefits,” the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division said in a statement.

Workers will receive 24 percent raises over five years, back pay and cash bonuses. The terms are largely unchanged from recommendations issued by a White House-appointed panel last month.

The contract dispute has not been resolved

Railroad workers will soon vote on a tentative deal, and if one of the unions rejects it, the nation will once again brace for a railroad strike.

Workers have largely opposed the presidential council’s contract recommendations, which ignore their demands for better quality of life and working conditions.

A recent survey from the SMART Transportation Division found that 78 percent of unionized railroad workers would reject the contract. Another survey from the grassroots group Railroad Workers United found that 9 in 10 railroad workers oppose it.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said Wednesday that 4,900 railroad workers voted to reject a union contract appointed by the Biden administration. This delayed the strike until September 29 to allow more time for negotiations.

It’s unclear whether the revamped contract announced Thursday is enough to win over workers, who are waiting for specific terms of the deal.

A strike would destroy the US economy

A walkout would close the nation’s rail network, which carries nearly a third of all cargo shipments, bringing a large part of the US economy to a halt.

Large quantities of food, clean water, fertilizers, fuel, timber, packaged goods, finished cars and other products will not reach their destination, limiting supply and raising prices.

The closure would also disrupt the supply chain when containers are stacked at the port.

It will cost the economy $2 billion per day, according to estimates from the Association of American Railroads. Another estimate from the Michigan-based Anderson Economic Group found that it would cost consumers much less: $60 million in the first day and $90 million in the second.

Several railroads began restricting shipments of perishable food and fertilizer this week in anticipation of the strike, alarming the U.S. agriculture sector, which has called on lawmakers to end the threat of a strike as soon as possible.

The commuter rail system, which relies on freight train lines, is also preparing for widespread service disruptions.

In response to Thursday’s deal, Amtrak said Thursday that it would restore the long-haul route that was suspended this week.

The Biden administration intervened in the latter effort

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh joined union and railroad negotiators for more than 20 hours straight to help broker a compromise, while President Biden also personally weighed in on the talks.

Biden wants to avoid a major economic disruption before mid-November and the holiday shopping season. For several weeks, the White House urged both parties to compromise for the sake of our nation’s economy, which is still struggling with red-hot inflation.

“This is a good thing for both sides, in my opinion,” Biden said Thursday.

Congress need not act again, for now

Congress this week prepared to step in and use its powers to block the strike, but lawmakers were divided on how to intervene.

GOP senators on Wednesday pushed a bill to force unions to accept the terms outlined by the president’s panel, but Democrats blocked the resolution, saying negotiators had to give up until Friday’s deadline to reach a deal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are ready with legislation to prevent rail shutdowns if negotiations collapse.

“Thankfully this action may not be necessary,” Pelosi said in a statement.

If workers in one of the railroad unions choose to reject the tentative agreement, the issue could go back before Congress.

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