A sigh of relief this morning: a railway strike has been averted
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A sigh of relief this morning - the White House has announced a tentative labor deal that could avoid a rail worker strike that would have threatened the nation's economy. The deal was announced early this morning. Amtrak says it is now working to restore trains and routes that the company suspended yesterday in anticipation of a strike. NPR's David Schaper has been following all of this and joins us now. Good morning, David.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So this is good news. Can you tell us about this tentative deal?
SCHAPER: Yeah. I mean, the Labor Department said in a statement that it took 20 consecutive hours of negotiations for the rail companies and union negotiators to reach this tentative agreement. And they say it balances the needs of workers, businesses and our nation's economy, calling it a hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal. You know, I should point out that 20 hours just in the last 24 hours is only the tip of the iceberg. I mean, this is a deal that they've been working on for years, and it just has come to a head in the last, you know, 30 days or so when there was a federal cooling-off period. President Biden, you know, stepped in to help to try to encourage these negotiations to move forward and reach a deal. He calls this agreement an important win for our economy and the American people that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid a disruption for our economy.
MARTIN: What was particularly difficult about these negotiations?
SCHAPER: A lot of these things do come down to pay in some instances. The American Association of Railroads praised the terms of the deal without revealing too many details. It does say that the new contracts provide rail employees a 24% wage increase over five years. There's an immediate payout of about an average of $11,000 per worker upon ratification. But that really wasn't the big sticking point in these last couple of weeks for the unions that represent engineers, conductors and other workers in particular. They were really seeking a better work-life balance. They work long hours and away from home several days at a time. They also complain about many days they spend on call and a system that when they need to take days off when they're on call that they say penalizes workers who need to take the days off for things like doctor's appointments or family emergencies and even funerals. It's still not clear how those more contentious issues were ultimately resolved.
MARTIN: So even just the threat of a possible strike was so frightening because the consequences would be so devastating that there were contingency plans that have already been put in place, right? Like, Amtrak suspended some passenger train routes.
SCHAPER: Yeah. You know, railroads, manufacturers, shippers, they've been preparing for a possible strike and stopped shipments of cars and some other valuable goods, even dangerous chemicals so those trains hauling those goods and materials would not end up stranded and vulnerable to maybe being tampered with or even stolen. Amtrak is in a different situation. They may need a few days to get their longer route service back on. You have to remember, outside of the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak owns much of its track - across the rest of the country, Amtrak runs its trains almost entirely on track owned, operated and maintained by the freight railroads. So if there had been a freight railroad strike, Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor could not really operate. So they've been canceling those long-distance trains to ensure that every train reached its final destination before a possible service disruption because of a strike, which would have occurred after midnight tonight.
MARTIN: We should just underscore that at this moment, it's a tentative agreement to avert a strike, which, David, just would have been devastating to the economy, right?
SCHAPER: Yeah, and it still could be. There are more than 12 different unions that actually have to sign off on their own individual contracts. But, yeah, so much of the food, clothing, materials, products that we buy, that we rely upon, that we use every day, comes to us at least part of the way on rail, from cars and car parts to the oil and gas we use to fuel our vehicles. There's also lumber, coal, grain, fertilizers, live stock feed. The Association of American Railroads said a strike would devastate the economy, costing the country up to $2 billion dollars a day.
MARTIN: OK. We so appreciate your reporting on this. NPR's David Schaper, thank you.
SCHAPER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.