Negotiators for the freight rail industry and two unions have reached a tentative labor contract agreement, and the railroads have agreed to extend negotiating deadlines with a third union. The agreements end the chance of a national railroad strike next week, according to AP.
A huge portion of the nation's goods are shipped via rail, and any interruption would be costly to retailers during the vital holiday shopping season. A strike would also disrupt Amtrak service and trains on some commuter railroads in big cities.
The National Railway Labor Conference bargained for more than 30 railroads, such as CSX and Union Pacific, while 13 unions were originally at the table, representing some 132,000 workers. Negotiators reached agreement with all but three unions. In October, President Obama created an emergency board to help mediate the outstanding labor disputes, and instituted a cooling off period to avoid a strike. That was set to expire next Tuesday, heightening fears of a walkout. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the potential for vast economic damage prompted calls for Congressional action:
"American Assn. of Port Authorities President and Chief Executive Kurt J. Nagel wrote to congressional leaders, saying, 'The National Carriers' Conference Committee estimates that a disruption of rail service could potentially cost our country $2 billion a day. Given the fragility of our current economy and job recovery, this simply cannot be allowed to occur.'"
And lawmakers responded. The Hill reports House members were ready to vote on a resolution introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) stopping any potential strike. It would force both sides in the rail negotiations to accept recommendations from the emergency panel the President set up in October. Mica chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Dennis Pierce, the head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, one of the unions to reach a tentative agreement, said he wasn't fully pleased with the tentative contract. But Pierce told McClatchy Newspapers he wanted union members to vote on it: "I said that a voluntary settlement was preferable because you control the outcome through the ratification process, instead of allowing a third party - in this case, a highly unpredictable Congress - to control the outcome."
The other union that reached a tentative agreement with the freight railroads is the American Train Dispatchers Association. Businessweek says the remaining union still at the negotiating table is the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which has now agreed to extend the cooling off deadline from Tuesday until February 8.