Apparently, all it took for unionized freight rail workers to finally force their companies to let them see a doctor without being penalized was to threaten to upend the entire supply chain. In tense, near-day long negotiations, White House and rail company trade groups both announced there is a deal, and all they’re waiting on is ratification from union membership.
Though they were granted pay raises in this latest round of contract negotiations, unionized freight rail workers were particularly hung up on rail company’s policies that penalized them for taking medical appointments. Workers had also called for more standardized working hours after years of being forced to be on-call practically all day, any day of the week. Federal law under the Railway Labor Act only guaranteed 10 hours off every 24 hours.
Negotiations seemed to break down Wednesday in closed door hearings held at the Department of Labor headquarters in Washington D.C. One relatively small union group, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, voted to reject a tentative agreement they had previously signed with their carrier. Under federal law, the freight worker unions are only allowed to strike after a mandatory “cooling off” period of 60 days of negotiations. Over fears of a massive strike that was set to take place early Friday, the White House apparently went into a frenzy trying to stave off an upending of the entire supply chain.
An anonymous Labor Department official cited by The Washington Post said they managed to reach a compromise after nearly 20 hours of negotiations between the two largest rail unions, BLET and SMART Transportation Division and their rail carriers. Apparently the new agreement offers workers voluntary assigned days off and makes changes to out-of-pocket healthcare costs. A leaked outline of the deal includes mention of taking time off “to attend routine and preventative medical, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.”
The Association of American Railroads, a trade group that represents the largest freight railroads in the U.S., reported that three unions representing around 60,000 freight rail workers had reached an agreement but only mentioned a 24% wage increase going through 2024 and an immediate 13.5% raise. Apparently, pay raises are well worth talking about but not the fact that workers were penalized for taking time off to see a doctor.
The agreements are still subject to ratification from union membership. Still, Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh also congratulated the two sides on the tentative agreement early Thursday.
Before the midnight Friday deadline before the unions enacted strikes, the rail carriers started to stop and reroute certain rail shipments, according to past reports. Amtrak, which operates on some freight lines, also said they would have suspended long-range services. The Wall Street Journal reported that Amtrak plans to restore long-distance train services.
Reportedly, President Joe Biden called Walsh and negotiators at 9 p.m. ET when they were still trying to reach an agreement, apparently to help speed things along, according to the WSJ.
In a statement, Biden said the tentative agreement reached early Thursday would allow “better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned.”
Biden also added that the deal helps “avert the significant damage any shutdown would have brought.”