Railroads and unions agree to deal, avoiding a potentially catastrophic shutdown

Railroads and labor unions reached a tentative agreement Thursday preventing a strike that would have made supply chain issues even worse. The five-year deal includes raises for workers and addresses union concerns about working conditions, time off and schedules. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was heavily involved in the negotiations and joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the deal.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported, rail workers and companies reached an agreement early today to avert a strike that could have disrupted the economy. Engineers and train conductors were able to secure more flexible schedules, including for medical leave.

    That was a major source of contention and longstanding dispute with the companies. The secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, was heavily involved with these negotiations, especially over the last 48 hours.

    He's here with me now.

    And, for the record, we should note that one of the companies, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Our understanding is that it was a central concern here that not necessarily pay for the workers, but working conditions. They wanted paid sick leave. They wanted medical leave. What does it say to you that they had to threaten a strike, which would have had devastating impacts on the U.S. economy, to get those seemingly simple things?

    Marty Walsh, U.S. Secretary of Labor: Yes, what really happened here, this negotiation was going on for two years, and they weren't able to get to an agreement.

    The president had to put in place a Presidential Emergency Board, a PEB, they call it, and they came up with a framework around what the contract should be moving forward. Some of those pieces were not in the PEB.

    So the unions in the company sat down at a table and had a conversation. It was a little deeper than just thinking about a couple of days off here, but it's really around the language and the way the language is written in a contract.

    And, to a layperson like myself, you read the language, sometimes, and it looks — it looks like — it reads like it sounds. But, as a lawyer, a labor lawyer, the definitions are different. So, we spent a lot of time over the course of the last year — well, I mean, not last — last night until 5:00 this morning going over this language. We were able to get to an agreement and avert — it would have been a strike, and it would have been catastrophic for the American economy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can you offer some more details, though?

    It was reported that they ended up with one day of paid sick leave as part of this deal. Is that true?

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, that's one piece of it. And then there was another part of it that there were three days for — like, for medical, meaning that there's part of the crews that have set time, set standards, three shifts, 7:00 to 3:00, 3:00 to 11:00, 11:00 to 7:00.

    And then there's — there's these crews that work when the train goes out. Those folks don't have predictability in their schedule. And, before this contract, they didn't have an ability to set a doctor's appointment, because, if they did a doctor's appointment, and it was in the middle of a week, and they didn't — they went to the doctor's appointment, they would not get a chance to work, because these trains would leave the station.

    So they were able to agree on that. They also were able to agree on some rules around work — around working rules in the contract. And then they're also, in the health care, the split — the split for health care is at 85/15. And when the contract expires, what they wanted to do, the unions want to do, is make sure they capped the 15 percent portion at 15 percent, or as high as $398, until the new contract comes in place.

    It's a monetary issue for the worker. You're absolutely right, though, that this was not a monetary issue at all on behalf of the company. But I think it was on principle. But we were able to get some good movement at the table last night.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Got to a satisfactory resolution for the union, and we got to a satisfactory resolution for the company.

    And this contract, overall, when you put the whole entire package together, it's a good contract for the worker. And I have seen many contracts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, this does bring the conversation back to working conditions for American workers. And we are in this moment, more broadly, that some are calling — are saying sort of a national labor movement, right?

    You have seen unions forming at Amazon and Starbucks and Trader Joe's and advocating for better working conditions. You are the first former union leader to run the Department of Labor in over 40 years. What does this movement say to you about the American worker today?

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, it says, very honestly, that the American worker is disgruntled and they're looking for collective power. And they're looking — in that collective power, they're looking for collective bargaining.

    And what's interesting about when I met with some Starbucks workers and Amazon workers at the White House, their main conversation wasn't about financial — financial aspects. It was about working conditions and the way that people are being treated, which I thought was really unique, because there were young people. They weren't saying, we're looking for exorbitant amounts of money, although they're looking for better salaries.

    But it really was about respect and the way that they were being treated inside these different facilities' stores, and safety when it came to Amazon. So, a lot of folks, 71 percent of American people look favorably upon unions today in the latest poll that I saw. It's the first time in my lifetime that I have seen those types of numbers.

    And more and more people are organizing. We're seeing an increase here at the Department of Labor at the National Labor Relations Board. It's up 58 percent from this time last year of people applying or for petitions to have card check agreements.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, related to that, as these groups are forming, people are advocating for better working conditions. You look at what's happened with the nurses strike in Minnesota just this week. We have seen years of teachers going on strike demanding better working conditions and better pay, as they're historically very low paid.

    Well, does this sort of say to you that we have reached a boiling point in this moment? And do you expect more strikes ahead?

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, I think we have.

    And I will tell you another one. Nurses in Wisconsin are looking to organize in Wisconsin. The former governor there, Walker, took away all the rights of unions in that state. And a lot of unions now are saying, we want to organize.

    And I think that — I think two things. Let's separate the two issues. What the nurses are going through, they're going to a contract negotiation. And what Amazon workers and Starbucks are going through, they're trying to be recognized by the company. So, in that particular case, I'm trying to encourage companies, and the president as well encouraging companies to go to the bargaining table.

    And your employees have decided, through a legal manner, to join a union. They want to form a union. And those companies are doing everything they can not to work with these companies' young people and these people to join the union.

    On the other side, on the nurses side, I will go back to what I have just spent the last 20 hours doing. You can't settle a contract if you don't have two willing parties. And what happened last night was, for two years, this has been going on with the rail companies and the unions. They weren't able to completely agree on everything.

    And, last night, they were in a room. I was trying to facilitate a conversation, which we — which I did, with help from a lot of other people, including Secretary Buttigieg, Secretary Vilsack, the president of the United States of America, and we got to an agreement.

    You need to — employers need to respect workers' rights, I think, in some cases, and the other way around too. Workers need to respect the employer. And that's why — that's why it's called collective bargaining. You win some arguments and you lose some arguments. But, at the end of the day, if the contract is a good contract for every side, then it's a good contract.

    And I haven't seen a case where you can't get to a contract if two sides continue to talk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Secretary, we know you're coming off a very long negotiation period there. We really appreciate you making the time to join us tonight.

    That is U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

    Thank you again.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Thank you.

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