Unions reach deal to avert railway strike

An agreement has been reached to avert a strike of the freight rail system in the middle of the holiday season, negotiators for a group of unions and railroad companies announced.

The National Railway Labor Conference's National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC) said that an agreement had been reached to extend a "cooling-off period" for negotiations between the rail companies and unions representing parts of the industry that had been set to expire Dec. 6.

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Twelve of the 13 unions involved in the talks had agreed to extend the period through February, but the NCCC said the last labor group, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), had agreed to extend the negotiating period. Two other unions, the American Train Dispatchers Association and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, had previously agreed to the extension, but the NCCC said those unions have now agreed to settlements.

NCCC Chairman A. Kenneth Gradia said while a deal with the BMWE union was still out of reach, it was important to continue the period they could keep talking.

"Everyone wins when we reach voluntary agreements,” Gradia said in a statement. “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 percent over six years, far exceeding recent union settlements in other industries.”

The lobbying group for rail companies, the Association of American Railroads, also cheered the deals.

“The goal of the nation’s freight railroads, from the start of bargaining almost two years ago, has been to reach voluntary settlements with all of its rail unions," AAR Edward Hamberger said in a statement.

"These agreements bring the industry closer to achieving that goal," he continued. "Freight rail touches nearly every sector of our economy, and we are committed to finalizing the remaining agreement so that we can continue to deliver for the tens of thousands of American businesses that rely on rail, and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who use passenger rail to commute to work every day.”

Business groups like the Chamber of Congress and the National Retail Federation had urged Congress to step in if the negotiations continued to look bleak, arguing that a rail strike would cripple businesses during the busiest shopping season of the year.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated he would be open to legislation to prevent a rail strike, and resolutions were filed in the House and Senate.

Chamber of Commerce director of transportation and infrastructure Alex Herrgott said in an interview that he was pleased the unions had reached an agreement to prevent a rail strike.

But he added, "It's important we don't rely on Congress to solve labor disputes.

"Uncertainty over the reliability of the transportation system continues to drive away foreign investment," Herrgott said.