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Biden scores deal on rail strike, but worker discontent emerges

White House celebrates agreement in Rose Garden but rank-and-file membership will have final say

President Biden on Thursday celebrated an agreement between rail carriers and union leaders to avert a national rail strike, but labor officials faced immediate questions from the workers whose support they need to ratify the deal.

Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, Biden touted the deal as the administration narrowly resolved an impasse that could have shut down critical parts of the U.S. economy. The president sold the deal as benefiting both the carriers and rail workers, while staving off a potential calamity for the nation’s fragile supply chains.

As the president spoke, union workers across the country began processing what was in the new agreement — and what was left out. Union leaders had pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave, but the proposed deal landed on just one day. The White House and union leaders emphasized that the agreement wins concessions that removes penalties for missing time due to an illness or medical emergency. Yet, as of Thursday afternoon many workers remained confused about exactly which new benefits had been won, showing the uphill climb union officials face in selling the compromise.

The rank-and-file membership will vote on the proposed contract in the next several weeks. Until then, the current contract will remain in place and service is expected to run as usual.

“It’s impossible right now to make heads or tails of what this agreement means, and it’s disgraceful how opaque is it,” said Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Even the best-case scenario doesn’t look like a massive victory for labor, but the devil is in the details. The worst-case scenario could be quite awful.”

Still, the accord represents a major breakthrough for the White House, which had launched an all-out effort in recent days to prevent a shutdown that could have had significant economic and political ramifications in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Industry and agricultural groups that had braced for a major impact celebrated the agreement, and union officials insisted the rail workers’ new contract marks a significant improvement from their current circumstance.

“This agreement can avert [the] significant damage that any shutdown would have brought,” Biden said in remarks from the Rose Garden at the White House.

The president was personally involved in the talks, calling into negotiations convened by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in Washington around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, and pressing both the carriers and the unions to come to an agreement in phone calls this week. Biden had grown animated in recent days about the lack of scheduling flexibility for workers, expressing a mixture of confusion and anger that management was refusing to budge on that point, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations with the president.

The political consequences of a rail strike less than two months before the midterm elections would have been monumental for Democrats, with Republican lawmakers blaming the administration for not securing a deal. Three of Biden’s Cabinet secretaries, his top economic adviser and his chief of staff were involved in the talks on an hourly basis, and White House aides drafted contingency plans for protecting the nation’s drinking water and energy systems if a deal had fallen through.

“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” Biden said in a statement announcing the deal. “I thank the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith and reaching a tentative agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy.”

Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute that had reached an impasse, following two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions that represent 115,000 railroad workers. The emergency board’s proposal included large wage increases, but did not address workers’ concerns with the carriers’ attendance policies, leading to the current negotiations.

If the contract is ratified, the agreement by the two largest railroad unions and railway carriers guarantees voluntary assigned days off and a single additional paid day off. Workers also can take time off for routine doctor’s appointments without being penalized, and would not lose attendance points for hospitalizations and surgical procedures, according to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

The deal also includes the biggest wage increases for railroad workers in more than four decades. They will receive a 24 percent pay increase by 2024, including an immediate 14 percent raise; $1,000 annual bonuses over five years; and no increases to health care co-pays and deductibles. The agreement would bring the average railroad worker’s pay to $110,000 a year by 2024.

Despite the breakthrough, critical questions remained. None of the parties involved in the talks has confirmed the number of unpaid sick days for which workers will be eligible, and some details about other provisions in the agreement remained unclear.

The reaction of rank-and-file union members to the deal appeared mixed on Thursday, with some raising the possibility that they might refuse to ratify the contract to be voted on in the coming weeks. Dozens of railroad workers took to social media on Thursday to air their rancor toward their own union leadership, which agreed to a single additional paid day off, which they said did little to address their concerns about working conditions. “Why is our union posting this like this is some kind game changing deal[?] 1 day is laughable,” one worker posted on Facebook. “We need to strike.” Still others said they were frustrated that the specifics of the deal have not yet been unveiled. It’s unclear how widespread the criticism is among membership.

“At the end of the day, the members of the union will make a decision on which way they’ll go, but in my opinion, seeing and bargaining a lot of contracts over the years, this is a nice contract, a good contract,” said Walsh, the Labor Secretary, in an interview with The Washington Post. “And this will help the companies, the other side of the coin, with recruitment and retention.”

The tentative deal marks the first time that railway carriers have bargained and reached an agreement over attendance policies that affect workers at three of the largest railway carriers — BNSF, Union Pacific and CSX. The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represented the railroads in negotiations, previously said that its ability to determine attendance policies is necessary to ensure that enough train operators are available to work amid labor shortages.

“The solidarity shown by our members, essential workers to this economy, who keep America’s freight trains moving, made the difference in our obtaining an agreement with provisions that exceeded the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART Transportation Division, and Dennis Pierce, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, two of the unions backing the tentative deal, in a joint statement.

In the past 20 hours of negotiations, railroad carriers also agreed to freeze monthly health care contributions during the end of a contract and bargaining period, which unions said would discourage carriers from dragging out negotiations. The agreement also protects two-person crews on trains — as safety concerns have mounted about workers operating trains solo.

The deal also marks an important moment for Biden, who has vowed to be the “most pro-union president” in American history.

The president faced a rising tide of political pressure to end the strike by enacting the contract recommendations of the board he had appointed. A strike would have caused enormous supply-chain problems, because large parts of the nation’s economy move through the rail system. It could have halted the movement of goods and led to massive layoffs. And the disruption on commuter trains would have been felt across the country. Picket lines had been planned in several cities, including Stockton, Calif.; Cleveland; and Baltimore. The disruption could have further driven up prices on a range of goods during a period of high inflation.

Congressional Republicans on Wednesday advanced legislation to force workers to accept those terms, making clear they would direct blame at the president should the impasse lead to a strike. Some moderate Democrats had begun to consider whether they should back the GOP approach to end the standoff.

Instead, Biden pursued the high-stakes strategy of focusing on securing a deal at the bargaining table. News of an agreement quickly led to a resumption in services. Amtrak, which on Wednesday had said it was canceling long-distance rail service, announced on Thursday that it was now “working to quickly restore canceled trains.”

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