Happening Now

Strike Crisis Averted for Now, But Stay Tuned

September 16, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Amtrak today restored all the long-distance service it had cancelled earlier this week as the threat of a nationwide Class I railroad shutdown loomed, thanks to a compromise between rail management and labor brokered by the White House and top Administration officials which extracted an important concession from the railroads on punitive work rules.

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Like everyone else, we’re awaiting the full details of the work-rule changes the Class Is’ representatives agreed to. But based on the White House’s announcement and a joint statement from the two biggest unions involved, we’re hopeful that the concession addresses labor’s simple and humane request for a reasonable time-off policy.

The grievances are real and serious, but at the same time a rail strike would be devastating to regular Americans who rely on trains to get to work, school, and home, as well as to buy everyday ordinary necessities that travel by freight rail.

And if it turns out that those concessions don’t go far enough to satisfy the rank-and-file members who now must ratify the deal, we urge everyone involved to keep working on a solution on behalf of the entire country.

Eyeing the potential for a $2 billion-a-day bomb dropped on the U.S. economy, both Congress and the White House grappled with how to avoid that disaster. Under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Congress would have had the right to pass emergency legislation forcing some more than 100,000 unionized workers back to work and imposing terms for a deal outlined last month by a Presidential Emergency Board.

The PEB’s Solomonic approach sidestepped the most crucial issue in the eyes of engineers, trainmen, and conductors – draconian work rules that penalized workers for getting sick, for going to the doctor, or for having medical emergencies or surgeries – and without White House intervention it’s likely that is what would have been imposed. Senate Republicans introduced a measure early this week that would have used the Railway Labor Act authorities to block a strike, without getting any movement on the work rules.

The White House had been working on this in the background since the PEB came together in July, and in August after the PEB’s report came out the White House put the issue on its front burner. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack worked the issue personally with the principals of the railroads and organized labor, as well as involving Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council – the economy version of the National Security Council. And then President Biden himself got involved, working the phones alongside his cabinet leaders, berating railroad executives for their unwillingness to budge on the medical leave issue.

The result? A settlement which, while it doesn’t give labor everything they wanted, avoids a Congressional move to impose an even-worse deal and which extracted a key concession on medical-related time off.

According to a joint statement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART), the workers’ willingness to walk off the job “made the difference in our Unions obtaining agreement provisions that exceeded the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board. We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains. As a result, this agreement includes agreement provisions that will create voluntary assigned days off for members working in thru freight service, and all members will receive one additional paid day off. Most importantly, for the first time ever, the agreement provides our members with the ability to take time away from work to attend to routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.”

A lot of rank-and-file members have taken to social media to criticize the tentative deal; many say it falls far short of the changes they were looking for on work rules. To some extent, that’s true. But it does go after the major sticking point unions identified going into this process – the horrible treatment workers endured when faced with medical or health issues. And more importantly, it avoids a potentially worse deal imposed by Congress, which is what the Class I railroads cynically relied on to avoid giving any concessions.

As I told numerous press outlets this week, the U.S. rail network is too important to America’s citizens to allow for an extended shutdown of the system, and all of us who rely on rail – passenger and freight – hope this tentative agreement ushers in a new posture of good-faith negotiations over difficult issues.