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Retail ‘Relieved’ as Tentative Rail Deal Reached

A tentative deal reached among rail unions announced in the early morning hours of Thursday has staved off a strike that could have come as early as Friday. 

Railroads, shippers and other industry stakeholders had been bracing for a possible work stoppage in more recent days as the clock ticked on a deadline for getting all contracts done before a cooling off period ended. 

“We are relieved and cautiously optimistic that this devastating nationwide rail strike has been averted,” National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement Thursday. “We appreciate the Biden administration’s intervention on behalf of the businesses and consumers who would have been impacted at a time when high inflation and economic uncertainty are challenging consumer budgets and putting business resiliency at risk.”  

American Apparel and Footwear Association President Steve Lamar similarly praised lawmakers and the Biden administration “for intervening on behalf of complex and critical supply chains that depend on the rail system, and for establishing the additional cooling off period while rank-and-file considers the deal.”

Lamar went on to “urge speedy conclusion of the parallel labor negotiations at the West Coast Ports—now in their fourth month—to make sure that we can avoid similarly brinksmanship in the future.”

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The tentative agreements struck by union leaders must still go before their members who will vote on whether they accept terms of the deal. 

The contract negotiations, in all, involved a dozen railroad unions. The deals reached overnight represented the remaining unions that had not struck tentative agreements to present to their members.

Of those 12 unions, as of late Wednesday, two unions had ratified their agreements with one rejecting the agreement and authorizing a strike. The latter contract is now back on the negotiating table. 

Thursday’s tentative agreements cover some 60,000 workers represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BLET); International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division (SMART-TD); and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS). 

Railroad attendance policies was a major area of disagreement between labor and employers, which was addressed in the overnight negotiations.

“For the first time our unions were able to obtain negotiated contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies,” Dennis Pierce and Jeremy Ferguson, presidents of BLET and SMART-TD, respectively, said in a statement announcing the tentative deal. 

Unions had objected to railroads’ policies that would have enabled employers to use time taken off for medical-related events in assessing overall employee attendance. 

Additionally, the deal also keeps health insurance monthly costs, copays and deductibles the same. 

“We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains,” Pierce and Ferguson said. 

The two sides met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on Wednesday as the White House sought to provide aid in getting deals struck

Railroads had begun a shutdown of some services earlier in the week, while Amtrak planned to halt long-distance service beginning Thursday. Meanwhile, retailers and other industry stakeholders called on lawmakers to intervene to avoid a strike. 

Carriers and unions have been locked in contract talks for nearly three years now, failing to reach an agreement in mediation over the summer, when the possibility of a strike was raised. President Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) was established in July to avoid a work stoppage and offer recommendations to help the two sides resolve their dispute. The two sides resumed negotiations last month after the PEB released its recommendations.

The president called the deals a win for workers with the proposed pay and benefits package, while he said the railroads now have an agreement that will attract and retain workers.  

“I thank the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith and reaching a tentative agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy,” Biden said in a statement.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association also voiced support for the deal averting an industry-threatening strike.

“The industry has endured enormous supply chain challenges over the last few years, and we are relieved that rail carriers and labor unions were able to reach a tentative agreement to avoid any further disruption,” it said in a statement. “We look forward to the contracts being formally ratified and we appreciate the Biden administration’s commitment to ensuring America’s railways remain open for business.”