‘Could have gone either way’: Railroad union deal barely survived

Susan Walsh/AP Photo
·7 min read

President Joe Biden narrowly avoided an economic and political debacle on Thursday as senior administration officials helped salvage a tentative, last-minute deal to avert a devastating railroad strike.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Steering clear of disaster required some 20 straight hours of talks beginning Wednesday that taxed Labor Department coffee supplies, kept West Wing office lights burning through the early hours and left everyone involved bleary-eyed and largely sleepless.

The agreement, still subject to union members’ approval, seemed all but dead late into the night as talks led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh dragged on with all sides in the years-long dispute frustrated and exhausted.

But the prospect of dormant freight trains leaving fall crops to rot in the fields, livestock to die of starvation and grocery shelves to go empty hung over the West Wing and spurred heavy pressure from Biden and the White House to strike a deal.

A rail strike affecting 40 percent of the nation’s freight traffic at a cost of $2 billion a day could have severely damaged an economy already suffering from supply chain snarls, the highest inflation in four decades and a Federal Reserve pumping hard on the brakes to bring prices down.

“It’s like, Holy Christ: The magnitude of what would have happened,” Walsh, running on an hour-and-a-half of sleep, said in an interview. “We’ll never fully understand, thank God.”

The tentative agreement allowed Biden to bask in a Rose Garden victory ceremony and tout gains for organized labor, an element of the Democratic base that's critical to the party’s hopes of avoiding a midterm electoral drubbing.

He called the agreement “an important win for our economy and the American people" as well as “a win for tens of thousands of rail workers.”

But this was more a case of flirting with catastrophe than scoring a game-changing win. And it took a buzzer-beater to get there.

“Things felt differently from when the sun went down to when it came up, that’s for sure,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who also played a major part in the talks even while devising emergency contingency plans in the event of failure. We “engaged in it at a heightened level for months and a lot of that culminated in the last 24 hours with more phone calls than I can count.”

Buttigieg and other administration officials heaped praise on Biden for a 9 p.m. call to negotiators representing the nation’s big rail carriers and union leaders, where he expressed concern and stressed that failure was “unacceptable.” But those involved in the talks said that while helpful, Biden was one of many who helped save the deal.

Other top Democrats called into the talks to urge a deal, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. And the heavy lifting on details of the deal — which granted pay hikes and time off for medical events, among other things — fell to Walsh, his deputy Julie Su, Buttigieg, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and other White House officials.

“Secretary Walsh was a constant,” AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan said.

The positive outcome was very much in doubt when the emergency talks began. “We didn't expect an agreement to come out of this,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART’s Transportation Division, one of the unions. “It was pretty hostile going in, to get started, and we've had a rough road.”

Things began to “drastically change once we got to the Department of Labor and Secretary Walsh and Deputy Secretary Su got involved and kind of facilitated mediation,” Ferguson said. They “helped get discussions going on and get the minds working.”

Union officials were careful to praise Biden. His call “was very much: Here he is! He’s going to talk to you now,” Regan, who was in touch with those in the room, said. “That was a very important moment.”

Until that point, “we had a long way to go,” Ferguson said. “I think we ran them out of coffee,” Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen President Dennis Pierce added.

But Ferguson and Pierce, who were at the table Wednesday and Thursday as the heads of unions that had not reached tentative agreements, also said many others played larger roles.

“You’re kind of overemphasizing that call” from Biden, Pierce said in response to repeated questioning about how it shifted the conversation. “It was special to us because it meant he was paying attention.” But “it was one of many we got.”

It was more of a check-in than anything else, Ferguson said: “He wanted to hear from us what we needed to get to where we were, and how he could answer our questions or be there to help.”

Yet from there, the talks gathered momentum.

“Both the union and the company [sides] moved after 9 o’clock,” Walsh said. “They started having real conversations” about the issue of time off, potentially the most significant sticking point in the talks and something that rail unions have not typically been able to negotiate as part of their contracts.

“That was the first time it’s ever happened,” Pierce said. “And that was the big one left; that was a tough one to get.”

“Up until that point, nobody was willing to move,” Walsh said. “They were wordsmithing more words than I probably can document. And plus, it was a long day. We’d been there for 12 hours at that point.”

The conversation turned next to health care, Walsh said — and “around 1:30 in the morning, the union moved significantly in one of their asks, and the company moved significantly on one of their asks.”

By the time an agreement was finalized shortly after 4 a.m., “it was emotional,” Walsh said. Negotiators “were exhausted” and “relieved.” For Walsh and his team, “it was very pleasing.”

For Pierce, the day wasn’t over: When the union president returned to his hotel room at the Wharf after breakfast, he found they’d given it away because he hadn’t been there since landing in Washington on Wednesday around 7:30 a.m. and going straight to the Labor Department.

“We haven’t been to bed yet,” Pierce said after leaving the White House around noon.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) move Wednesday evening to block a resolution from Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, also gave new life to the talks, union officials said.

“That Congress stayed out of it was very pivotal,” Pierce said. “When Burr’s resolution was blocked [Wednesday,] it changed the tone of the meetings. Everyone knew we had a job to do. Congress wasn’t going to step in.”

Deese and other senior White House officials stayed up all night, monitoring progress through phone calls with Walsh.

“The fulcrum period was really between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. when Secretary Pete, [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack and I made a round of calls to the CEOs to signal that it wasn’t clear this thing could close and that we took it very seriously and were going to resolve it and they needed to move,” Deese said in an interview.

Unions say the cooling-off period’s expiration at 12:01 a.m. Friday helped them move the needle. “The looming deadline worked in our favor,” Pierce said. “As we got closer and closer, everybody knew this needs to happen by midnight tonight — or things are going to shut down.”

It is not yet known whether workers will vote to ratify the tentative agreement once they see it, though White House officials express confidence they will.

“There’s a lot of anger out there because of the way they've been treated all across the board in all of our unions,” Pierce said. “That makes it hard to ratify contracts when you get your employees all agitated.”

The deal, while perhaps short of a huge victory, allowed Biden to take a social media shot at one critic — a Wall Street Journal editorial that questioned his ability to both satisfy labor and keep the trains running.

“Thanks for your concern, @wsj,” Biden Tweeted from his official POTUS account. “To answer your question: yes, the trains are running on time.”

Tanya Snyder contributed to this report.