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How rail companies and union negotiators averted a strike

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden calls it a win for the economy and for the American people. Rail companies and union negotiators reached a tentative agreement to avoid what would have been a crippling strike this weekend. Dennis Pierce is president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and he joins us. Mr. Pierce, thanks so much for being with us.

DENNIS PIERCE: Oh, thank you for the opportunity.

SIMON: Why do you believe your members should approve this deal?

PIERCE: Well, this has been a very long-drawn-out negotiating session, bargaining round, and labor relations between the employees and their employers are at an all-time low. So you have to understand the backdrop that we've been working against. The Railway Labor Act is very restrictive on the ability to get to a strike. Very long-drawn-out steps have to be followed, mediation managed by the National Mediation Board for you to first reach the point of a strike or a lockout by either side.

On Friday morning, that would have - those steps would have exhausted. We would have had the right to exercise self-help, as it's called. In the interim, we have extended that cooling-off period. The right to strike is not gone. It is just extended while we put this tentative agreement out to the membership to see if this will settle their grievances with their employers. It is a purely democratic process that the membership has the full say in.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you because this agreement, as I understand it, includes an increase in pay, more flexibility in work schedules, but not paid time off for routine medical appointments. Why aren't railroad workers entitled to a consideration that so many millions of Americans already have?

PIERCE: Well, it's a good question, but the contracts between the railroads and their employees have never had sick time. There are a lot of industries don't have that in their contract. And a lot of non-union-represented working-class Americans also don't have access to paid sick leave. We requested that. One of the steps of the - the final steps of the negotiating process, we went before a presidential emergency board and we made our case for that. Once those recommendations came out, under the act, those become the basis for negotiations, which last week or this week was. And they're generally based on what's in those recommendations.

As a fallback, if the parties don't come up with an agreement, Congress traditionally steps in and imposes in most cases the recommendations, and they would have been absent sick leave, our request to negotiate on attendance and other issues that we did not get a favorable recommendation on. So if it's not in the recommendation, it's extremely hard to get in the contract. And that's why we geared ourselves towards just trying to address some of the attendance-related issues we've been arguing over.

SIMON: Is the bottom line you are not prepared to make paid sick leave an issue to strike over?

PIERCE: What we're doing here is giving our membership a chance to step in and see if this satisfies them. It's their contract. They have the right to decide that. If they reject this because it does not include paid sick leave, then some time in December, we'll be right back where we are today, or where we were Friday morning. We will be back where the cooling-off period will expire again. And either we will have a new agreement or we will have the right to strike again then.

SIMON: Mr. Pierce, please tell us about the White House involvement in these negotiations. What did they offer? What did they seem to say? Do you think their involvement was valuable?

PIERCE: I think the fact that the cabinet member, Secretary Walsh, stepped in and hosted and managed the final round of bargaining showed how committed they were to trying to get the parties together. I don't think either side was favored by the administration. I think they were partisan - or, excuse me, nonpartisan - in their efforts to try to get both sides to come to an agreement. That was their goal. And I think President Biden fully supported that.

There were also efforts going on in the House and the Senate. There was an effort by the Republicans in the Senate to cut our knees off at the bargaining table with the resolution to just impose the bare bones recommendation. Because that failed - Senator Sanders was a pivotal part of that - we were able to stay at the table and come away with more than was in that recommendation.

SIMON: Mr. Pierce, would you vote to approve this agreement?

PIERCE: I probably would. I'm - we're working now, and I qualify that for this reason. There's a question and answer phase running into now where we will send this tentative agreement out to our bargaining representatives all across America. They will send in questions. We will then meet with the railroads to get those answered. So it's not a complete package yet, and the results of that question and answer session are going to drive a whole lot of what the thing actually means.

SIMON: Dennis Pierce of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen - Mr. Pierce, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

PIERCE: Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.