President Biden touts tentative labor deal to avert rail strike The strike would have had ripple effects across America's economy. Railroads, manufacturers and shippers were preparing for the worst.

President Biden touts tentative labor deal to avert rail strike

President Biden touts tentative labor deal to avert rail strike

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The strike would have had ripple effects across America's economy. Railroads, manufacturers and shippers were preparing for the worst.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This morning, President Biden is touting a tentative deal to avert a rail strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And this is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work. It's a recognition of that.

MARTINEZ: The strike would have had ripple effects across America's economy. NPR's Andrea Hsu joins us now. Andrea, what else did the president have to say about this? I know he called it a win. And give us some details about that contract.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Yeah. He said he was very pleased, and he thanked Business and Labor. You know, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was in talks with these group - with these parties until the wee hours of this morning. So what this contract gives workers is a very substantial raise over a five-year period that goes from 2020 to 2024. You know, they've been negotiating this contract for several years. So workers will get a 14% wage increase once the contract is ratified and then raises next year and the year after, too. So that comes to a total of 24% in wage increases over five years. And that sounds like a lot, but it's actually less than the unions had originally asked for, citing the record inflation that we've been experiencing.

But, A, the unions are also highlighting another piece of this deal that they say was key to reaching an agreement, and that is language that allows workers to take time off for medical needs without facing discipline. This was the issue holding up the deal in recent days. And the unions say this is important because it sets a precedent that these kinds of workplace policies are something they can bargain over.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, it sounds like something really basic, a real work-life balance kind of thing, being able to take time off when you're sick.

HSU: Yeah, and we heard the president there talk about the dignity of these workers. He says workers need to have their right to go to the doctor and stay healthy. Now, the unions had originally asked for 15 days of paid sick leave, but that was a nonstarter for the rail companies. So what they're getting is a lot less than that. But under these attendance policies that have been introduced, you know, really, since the pandemic, workers were actually getting penalized if they got sick and had to go to the doctor unexpectedly. The unions had called these policies draconian. They said they were forcing workers to report to work ill and fatigued. And the rail carriers said they introduced these policies to ensure consistency and reliability in attendance, which they said they needed to stay competitive.

But of course, this contract still has to be voted on by the membership, so we'll get a sense of what the workforce thinks of this deal, you know, in the coming days.

MARTINEZ: Any sense of how they might vote now?

HSU: Well, it's kind of too early to know, but a glance at social media shows that at least some of them are really not happy. They wanted those paid sick days, and they're not getting those paid sick days, though the deal does include one more day of paid personal leave. You know, just - being a railroad engineer, a conductor, it's a really hard job. You have these really unpredictable schedules. You're on call most of the time. It's hard to plan your life. And in the pandemic, a lot of workers decided, you know, that's not OK. So it will be interesting to see whether this deal goes far enough for a majority of the rail workers. And, you know, in other contract negotiations and other industries, workers have voted down contracts. But in any event, the so-called cooling-off period has been extended. So there will not be a strike for now.

MARTINEZ: OK, when will these workers vote on this, though?

HSU: Well, it's not going to be immediate. The lawyers do have to go over all the fine print, and they have to present this deal to the workers, and they'll have some time to review it before they vote. So what I'm hearing is not days but weeks.

MARTINEZ: Now, we know some shipments were canceled in anticipation of a possible strike, and Amtrak suspended some of their passenger train routes. Tell us more about that. Is that going to not happen now?

HSU: Yeah, well, some companies had stopped shipments of cars and other valuable goods and things like dangerous chemicals, chlorine, so that the trains that were moving those goods would not end up stranded if there was a strike. So I imagine those will continue. Those will restart. Amtrak had canceled its long-distance trains as of today, and they'll need probably several days to get those routes back on track.

MARTINEZ: All right, that's NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thanks a lot.

HSU: You're welcome.

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