Negotiators for 30 of the nation's railroads and labor representatives backed away from a strike that might have crippled the nation's fragile economic recovery. Two more tentative agreements were reached and the only remaining union without a deal agreed to keep talking at least through Feb. 8.
The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the railroads, and 13 unions representing 132,000 workers have been trying to hammer out differences over wages, benefits and job protection since talks began way back in January 2010.
As of Thursday, tentative agreements had been reached with only 10 of the 13 unions and a 30-day cooling off period was set to expire on Dec. 6. No strike can be called during a cooling off period.
But the NCCC announced Friday that representatives shook hands over a tentative deal with two more unions--the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the American Train Dispatchers Assn. The third union still without a contract, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, agreed to extend the cooling off period until Feb. 8.
Complete details were not disclosed pending ratification by a vote of union members, but the chairman of the railroad bargaining committee talked about what had been achieved.
A. Kenneth Gradia, chairman of the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, said, “In a tough economy, these agreements offer a terrific deal for rail employees. They lock in well-above market wage increases of more than 20% over six years, far exceeding recent union settlements in other industries.”
The president for the last union without a deal said that his members had not agreed to extend the talks because they were afraid to call a strike.
"We took this action because we believe it gives our members the best opportunity to resolve this issue quickly and fairly and avoid an interruption to commerce and avoid a wage loss to our members and other union members who would honor our picket lines," said the union's president, Freddie Simpson.
Railroad negotiations are always complicated because a strike that can shut down the nation's freight and commuter railroads can be set off by just one union walking off the job. The last national railroad shutdown took place in June 1992. The rail closures were so devastating that they were costing the economy an estimated $1 billion a day in lost jobs and economic output.
In Southern California, the shutdown caused two days of traffic congestion nightmares as trucks were forced to haul freight that was normally carried by rail. Commuter trains were also idled, forcing even more drivers onto already gridlocked freeways and surface streets.
After only 48 hours of those and similar problems around the nation, Congress intervened with emergency legislation that was quickly signed by then President Bush, ordering the rails to be reopened and specifying that talks had to resume.
Today, with the U.S. economy even more dependent on consumer spending and international trade, the American Assn. of Railroads had estimated that a rail shutdown would be twice as costly--at about $2 billion a day.
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-- Ronald D. White
Photo: A Union Pacific freight train hauling cargo through Omaha, Neb. Experts said that a national railroad strike would be twice as costly as the one that took $1 billion a day out of the U.S. economy in 1992. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press