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Biden says tentative railway labor deal has been reached, averting a strike

FILE - Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Amtrak Johnstown Train Station, Sept. 30, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. President Joe Biden believes that unions built the middle class. He also knows a rail worker strike could damage the economy ahead of midterm elections. That leaves him in the awkward position of espousing the virtues of unionization even as members of his administration work to keep talks going in Washington between the railroads and unionized workers aimed at averting a shutdown. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Amtrak Johnstown Train Station, Sept. 30, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. President Joe Biden believes that unions built the middle class. He also knows a rail worker strike could damage the economy ahead of midterm elections. That leaves him in the awkward position of espousing the virtues of unionization even as members of his administration work to keep talks going in Washington between the railroads and unionized workers aimed at averting a shutdown. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Updated September 15, 2022 at 12:47 PM ET

A strike that could have halted both freight and passenger trains across the country seems to have been averted.

After a marathon negotiating session lasting 20 hours, the White House announced early Thursday that a tentative agreement had been reached between rail companies and the unions representing conductors and engineers.

"This agreement is validation – validation of what I've always believed. Unions and management can work together, can work together for the benefit of everyone," President Biden said, calling the deal a win for America and for rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to deliver goods.

Union members still have to vote to ratify the agreement before it is finalized. A vote is not expected for at least a couple of weeks.

The parties had been negotiating the contract without resolution for several years and were facing a 12:01 am Friday deadline, the end of a "cooling off period."

Biden called in to the talks at 9 p.m. Wednesday night to urge groups to "be flexible, be creative, get a deal done," an official said. At 2 a.m. Thursday, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh called to announce they had a deal.

Already this week, freight rail companies had halted shipments of hazardous materials, including chlorine to water treatment plants and chemicals for fertilizers, not wanting those goods to be left unattended should a strike be called.

Amtrak said in a statement it is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures. Yesterday, Amtrak announced that it was canceling all of its long-distance trains due to the threatened strike.

The National Carriers' Conference Committee, which represents the nation's freight railroads said: "The tentative agreements announced today follow the August 16 recommendations of Presidential Emergency Board...which include a 24% wage increase during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024 — with a 14.1% wage increase effective immediately — and five annual $1,000 lump sum payments."

The deal also includes changes to workplace attendance policies that workers found overly punitive. Under the tentative agreement, workers will be able to take time off for medical care without facing discipline, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division confirmed in a joint statement.

Those attendance policies had become the major sticking point as the deadline for a deal neared.

In an interview with NPR, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said the proposed deal will bring not just pay increases and quality of life improvements for workers but will help the railroads as well.

"It means a way to attract and retain great workers," Buttigieg said. "It means avoiding the disruptions that could have accompanied any kind of shutdown or or slowdown."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.