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Texas union leaders say tentative rail industry agreement shows strength of banding together

 A worker rides a rail car at a BNSF rail crossing in Saginaw, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Business and government officials are preparing for a potential nationwide rail strike at the end of this week while talks carry on between the largest U.S. freight railroads and their unions. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The Associated Press
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AP
A worker rides a rail car at a BNSF rail crossing in Saginaw, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Business and government officials are preparing for a potential nationwide rail strike at the end of this week while talks carry on between the largest U.S. freight railroads and their unions. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A tentative agreement reached between rail workers and the companies they work for will likely keep trains in Texas running and thousands of employees on the clock.

But union leaders in Texas said the negotiations also showed the power of workers banding together to improve conditions for themselves and other laborers.

“It’s just another instance of what we’re seeing all over the country of workers coming together, and when they exercise their power, they actually win,” said Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy. “Which is why I think we’re seeing so much labor activity and the labor scene is so positively in the public eye these days.”

News broke during Thursday’s predawn hours that railroad companies reached a tentative agreement with their employees who were on the verge of walking off the clock after the stroke of midnight Friday. That’s when a 60-day cooling period initiated by the Biden administration was scheduled to officially end. State economists said a strike could have wreaked havoc on a supply chain and economy still reeling from the ill effects COVID-19.

As of 2020, Texas had more miles of rail line than any other state, at about 10,460, according to the Association of American Railroads. It also had the highest number of freight workers, at about 17,200 and the second-highest number of freight railroads, at 54, behind Pennsylvania’s 61.

The disagreements centered largely around quality-of-life issues, said Levy, including workers being forced to be on call around the clock. The agreement calls for gradual wage increases over the next five years and includes retroactive pay increases, according to a joint statement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation, or SMART-TD, union, who added the final agreement still needs to be approved by members.

“For the first time, our unions were able to obtain negotiated contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies. Our unions will now begin the process of submitting the tentative agreement to the rank and file for a ratification vote by the memberships of both unions,” the groups said.

A prolonged strike could have cost the country’s economy $2 billion daily and affected industries that include energy, agriculture, manufacturing, retail and other sectors, according to Reuters.

A strike could have also hit the state’s border economy. For years, Texas has been Mexico’s No. 1 trade partner, enjoying the benefits of free-trade pacts that have been in place for decades. While most of the trade between Texas and Mexico relies on tractor-trailer traffic, rail cargo also plays a significant role. When asked how much binational commerce could have been affected by the strike, Kamron Saunders, the Austin-based state legislative director at SMART-TD, was blunt.

“All of it. That’s also huge,” he said.

The issue prompted some Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to fault the Biden administration for failing to act even as inflation continues to hit Americans’ pocketbooks.

“The Biden administration appears to be frozen and undecided about what to do,” Cornyn said Wednesday.

On Thursday Cornyn said he was thankful an agreement looked likely, but still criticized Biden for his close ties to labor groups.

“President Biden is quite famously tied to labor, organized labor, and he didn’t want to choose between his friends and allies,” he said. “But I am glad that we avoided a shutdown because people are already feeling a lot of headwinds when it comes to food, gasoline, and heating their homes.”

Levy said the agreement was important for Biden, as it showed the administration has workers’ backs.

“I don’t think you can say that one side completely won, but what you can say is that the Biden administration brought people together to have productive negotiations and they did not put their finger on the scale on the side of the employers,” he said.

In a statement Biden called the deal a win for the economy and the American public.

“These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned,” he said. “The agreement is also a victory for railway companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will continue to be part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom