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A look at the tentative deal between freight railroads and rail workers' unions


A tense start to the week gave way to a big sigh of relief at the White House this morning.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As you might guess, I am very pleased.

MCCAMMON: And President Biden did look happy as he announced a tentative deal between freight railroads and rail workers unions, averting a nationwide strike.


BIDEN: This is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work. It's a recognition of that.

MCCAMMON: Biden said the deal was good for railway companies as well, saying it'll help them recruit and retain workers. The two sides had been trying to hash out a contract for almost three years. For more on the latest developments, we're joined now by NPR's Andrea Hsu, as well as Frank Morris from member station KCUR in Kansas City. Hello to you both.



MCCAMMON: Andrea, what do we know about what is in this tentative deal?

HSU: Well, this deal would give more than 100,000 rail workers a significant increase in wages - 24% over five years. And just to be clear, this contract covers a period going back to 2020. That's how long the negotiations have been going on. So a lot of that raise, they'd get right away. And 24%, it sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. But of course, inflation is high, and the unions had asked for an even bigger increase to account for that. But really, the key sticking point for the union was not wages. It was these strict attendance policies that the railroads have. The unions called them draconian. Currently, workers are penalized for taking unscheduled time off, even if they're sick.

Now, the rail companies say these policies are aimed at improving consistency and reliability for both crews and customers. But in any event, the deal brokered here in Washington would give workers the ability to take time off for illness. They'd likely have to prove they were sick. But the details have to be worked out at the local level.

MCCAMMON: OK. So, Frank, how are the workers responding to this agreement?

MORRIS: Well, it's mixed, Sarah. It's important to note that the members haven't seen the details of this agreement yet. Most of the ones posting on Facebook and Twitter are not too happy about it. A lot of people say it doesn't do enough to ease the hardships that working on the railroad imposes. A lot of these jobs are tough. Michael Lindsey, a locomotive engineer who works for Union Pacific, says workers miss holidays, birthdays, and they're often away from their families for days at a stretch.

MICHAEL LINDSEY: I have horrible regrets about the time not being with my daughter as much as I could have. You know, I try to make it up the best I can, but I feel like she might be coming to a point in her life, being 11, where she acts like maybe she's starting to resent me for it a bit.

MORRIS: And the pay hike has to be taken in perspective. Brian Walker maintains railroad tracks for Union Pacific. He hasn't had a raise in three years, and most of the 24% offered is retroactive. And when the agreement ends in 2024, workers will start another long negotiating process and another long stretch without a pay increase. Still, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, says the deal on the table makes lots of headway on quality-of-life issues and pay, but he says it's going to take a few days just to digest everything hammered out in 20 hours of negotiations last night.

DENNIS PIERCE: Well, we've been up all night. We just wrapped this up at 5 in the morning. The task now is to get it to where we can explain it to folks, get it out there, explain it to them and let them make their own decision. Democracy is the key of a union movement.

MCCAMMON: And, Andrea, we heard President Biden talk about the dignity of the workers. And it sounds like quality-of-life issues were really central to these negotiations. Is that surprising?

HSU: Well, given everything that workers have been through in this pandemic, I think we shouldn't be surprised. You know, workers don't feel valued, especially essential workers who never stopped working and put themselves at risk. And one of these railroad companies, BNSF, they actually introduced the kind of strict attendance policy I just mentioned just this past February, two years into the pandemic. And the workers were just outraged over it. They wanted to strike back then, but a federal judge blocked them from doing so. So workers say they're in a terrible position. Either they're punished for calling out sick or they have to go to work feeling ill, which could be dangerous.

And, you know, Sarah, the unions had originally asked for 15 paid sick days. They're not getting that - not even close. This tentative deal does include one paid personal day. That was the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Board. But by getting in some language about how and when the rail workers can tend to their personal medical needs, they have set a precedent and these kind of work - that these kind of workplace attendance policies are something that they can bargain over. And that's a big deal.

MCCAMMON: Of course, this is a tentative deal, as we've been saying. Frank, what's next here? When can we expect a vote?

MORRIS: Well, not today or tomorrow. Dennis Pierce says it'll likely take three weeks to get the tentative contract in front of workers. And he says the union will need time to explain exactly what's in it for them. And he says it'll take another two or three weeks to collect and count the votes. He says the deadline for getting something approved hasn't been set, though he says he's in a hurry to finalize the agreement and get his members that pay bump and a little better work-life flexibility they need. But this is not a done deal. Members have to vote, and they could reject the agreement. That happened last fall at John Deere. About 10,000 UAW workers went on strike, rejecting a tentative agreement that would've boosted pay by about 20%.

MCCAMMON: Ahead of a potential strike, some rail services were suspended, including Amtrak. Andrea, to what extent are things getting back to normal now?

HSU: Well, a lot of Amtrak trains remain canceled today, but Amtrak says it plans to have all their trains running again tomorrow. And they are rebooking people whose plans were disrupted this week. And then there were the rail carriers, who had stopped moving hazardous materials and time-sensitive goods, just in case there was a strike. They've informed their customers they're working to resume normal operations as soon as possible as well.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Andrea Hsu and Frank Morris from member station KCUR in Kansas City. Thank you.

HSU: You're welcome.

MORRIS: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.