WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Thursday a tentative railway labor agreement has been reached, averting a potentially devastating strike before the pivotal midterm elections.
He said the tentative deal “will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy.”
The Democratic president believes unions built the center class, but he also knew a rail employee strike could have badly damaged the nation’s economy. That left him within the awkward position of espousing the virtues of unionization in Detroit, a stalwart of the labor movement, while members of his administration went all-out to maintain talks getting into Washington between the railroads and unionized staff in hopes of averting a shutdown.
But after an extended night, the talks succeeded and Biden announced Thursday that the parties had reached a tentative agreement to avoid a shutdown that might go to union members for a vote. He hailed the deal in an announcement for avoiding a shutdown and as a win for all sides.
“These rail staff will recuperate pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” Biden said. “The agreement can also be a victory for railway corporations who will find a way to retain and recruit more staff for an industry that may proceed to be a part of the backbone of the American economy for a long time to come back.
America’s rail system is significant to our economy and country. We thank the labor unions and railroad corporations for staying on the table and avoiding a destructive shutdown by reaching a deal that advantages all parties.
— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) September 15, 2022
It looked way more tenuous for the president only a day earlier.
United Auto Staff Local 598 member Ryan Buchalski introduced Biden on the Detroit auto show on Wednesday as “probably the most union- and labor-friendly president in American history” and someone who was “kickin’ ass for the working class.” Buchalski harked back to the pivotal sitdown strikes by autoworkers within the Nineteen Thirties.
Within the speech that followed, Biden recognized that he wouldn’t be within the White House without the support of unions akin to the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Staff, saying autoworkers “brung me to the dance.”
But back in Washington, officials in his administration on the Labor Department were in tense negotiations to stop a strike — some of the powerful sources of leverage that unions need to bring about change and improve working conditions.
Without the deal that was reached among the many 12 unions, a stoppage could have begun as early as Friday that could halt shipments of food and fuel at a value of $2 billion a day.
Much more was at stake than sick leave and salary bumps for 115,000 unionized railroad staff. The ramifications could extend to manage of Congress and to the shipping network that keeps factories rolling, stocks the shelves of stores and stitches the U.S. together as an economic power.
That’s why White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking aboard Air Force One because it jetted to Detroit on Wednesday, said a rail employee strike was “an unacceptable consequence for our economy and the American people.” The rail lines and their staff’ representatives “have to stay on the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and are available to an agreement,” she said.
Biden faced the identical type of predicament faced by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel — how do you balance the needs of labor and business in doing what’s best for the nation? Railways were so vital during World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the industry to maintain goods flowing and forestall strikes.
Contained in the White House, aides don’t see a contradiction between Biden’s devotion to unions and his desire to avoid a strike. Union activism has surged under Biden, as seen in a 56% increase in petitions for union representation with the National Labor Relations Board to this point this fiscal 12 months.
One person acquainted with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to debate White House deliberations on the matter, said Biden’s mindset in approaching the talk was that he’s the president of your entire country, not only for organized labor.
With the economy still recovering from the provision chain disruptions of the pandemic, the president’s goal is to maintain all parties so a deal could possibly be finalized. The person said the White House saw a commitment to maintain negotiating in good faith as the very best option to avoid a shutdown while exercising the principles of collective bargaining that Biden holds dear.
Moments ago, following greater than 20 consecutive hours of negotiations at @USDOL, the rail corporations and union negotiators got here to a tentative agreement that balances the needs of staff, businesses, and our nation’s economy. (1/2)
— Secretary Marty Walsh (@SecMartyWalsh) September 15, 2022
Biden also knew a stoppage could worsen the dynamics which have contributed to soaring inflation and created a political headache for the party in power.
Eddie Vale, a Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications aide, said the White House pursued the proper approach at a deadly moment.
“Nobody wants a railroad strike, not the businesses, not the employees, not the White House,” he said. “Nobody wants it this near the election.”
Vale added that the sticking point within the talks was about “respect principally — sick leave and bereavement leave,” issues Biden has supported in speeches and together with his policy proposals.
Sensing political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to pass a law to impose contract terms on the unions and railroad corporations to avoid a shutdown. Democrats, who control each chambers in Congress, blocked it.
“If a strike occurs and paralyzes food, fertilizer and energy shipments nationwide, it can be because Democrats blocked this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The economic impact of a possible strike was not lost on members of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group that represents CEOs. It issued its quarterly outlook for the economy Wednesday.
“We’ve been experiencing loads of headwinds from supply chain problems for the reason that pandemic began and people problems could be geometrically magnified,” Josh Bolten, the group’s CEO, told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants across the country that likely need to shut down. … There are critical products to maintain our water clean.”
The roundtable also had a gathering of its board of directors Wednesday. But Bolten said Lance Fritz, chair of the board’s international committee and the CEO of Union Pacific railroad, would miss it “because he’s working hard attempting to bring the strike to a resolution.”
Back on the Labor Department, negotiators ordered Italian food as talks dragged into Wednesday night and the White House announced the agreement at 5:05 a.m. on Thursday.