Railroads and unions reached a preliminary labor agreement early Thursday to avert a national rail strike that threatened to shut down much of the U.S. transportation network.
The last-minute deal avoids massive disruptions to the flow of key goods and commodities across the country. About 40% of the country’s long-distance trade is carried by rail. If the unions had gone on strike, more than 7,000 trains would have stopped, costing an estimated $2 billion a day.
The UKTN for an agreement was midnight Friday morning. The parties negotiated for 20 consecutive hours before reaching a deal.
“The tentative agreement reached tonight is a major victory for our economy and the American people,” President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing the deal. “It is a victory for tens of thousands of railroad workers who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to ensure American families and communities received supplies of what has kept us going through these difficult years.”
The White House had been in talks with railroad workers’ unions and companies for several months, but the negotiations were suspended over unpaid sick days.
Preliminary agreements have been reached with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, representing approximately 60,000 employees, said the Association of American Railroads in a press release.
The new agreement would improve wages and working conditions for railroad workers and give them “peace of mind about their healthcare costs,” Biden said. He thanked railway unions and companies for the “good faith” negotiations.
The new contracts offer railroad workers a 24% pay increase over the five-year period from 2020 to 2024, including immediate average payouts of $11,000 upon ratification, according to the Association of American Railroads. The agreement also provides for an additional paid day off for workers, according to a joint statement from the unions.
A union spokesman called it a historic victory and said the deal paves the way for a review of attendance policies in the future, but warned the preliminary agreements must be ratified by union members. That process that can take at least a week.
“I thank the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith and reaching a preliminary agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption to our economy,” Biden said in a statement.
Railroad and union negotiators had met in the office of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on Wednesday as the parties attempted to negotiate a deal ahead of Friday’s strike UKTN.
Norfolk Southern and other railroads had phased out operations to prioritize critical shipments. The railway company said Thursday it was working to restore normal operation.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to provide our artisanal railroad companies with wages and benefits that keep them among the highest paid workers in the nation. We are pleased to have a path forward that achieves that goal and lets us go back to the work of running a customer-centric, operations-driven railroad,” Norfolk Southern said in a message to customers.
Union Pacific on Thursday canceled a previously imposed embargo on certain commodities and said it was working with customers to clear backlogs.
Amtrak was also working to restore normal operation. The company announced on Wednesday it would cancel all long-distance trains pending a strike, as many of its railways are serviced by freighters.
Amtrak said Thursday it expected to fully recover operations by Friday.
— UKTN’s Melody Warner contributed to this report.