Biden announces 'tentative agreement' between unions and rail carriers to avoid strike
Joe Biden (AFP)

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The Biden White House on Thursday announced a "tentative agreement" to avert a national rail strike that could have begun as soon as the end of the week as workers fought for basic sick leave that their hugely profitable employers refused to provide.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said the deal represents "a win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to ensure that America's families and communities got deliveries of what have kept us going during these difficult years. "

"These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their healthcare costs: all hard-earned," Biden continued. "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."

Absent from Biden's statement is any specific mention of the sick leave issue that was central to the dispute between major freight rail carriers and their employees, who have been working for three years without a contract as railroads see booming profits.

"I thank the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith and reaching a tentative agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy," Biden said Thursday.

The major unions that had been preparing to strike did not immediately respond to the tentative deal, the details of which were not made readily available.

NBC News reported that "a source familiar with the negotiations described the 'tentative' language as 'a standard part of the ratification process,' which will now go to the union membership for a vote."

"As part of the agreement reached last night, there will be a 'cooling off' period of several weeks to ensure that if a vote doesn't succeed for any reason, there still would not be an immediate rail shutdown," the outlet added.

A statement from the National Carriers' Conference Committee, which represents the major railroads, also contained no mention of attendance policies that unions said have been ruining members' lives, raising questions over whether workers will back the deal.

The White House announced the agreement after frenzied negotiations between administration officials, including Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and representatives of the unions and rail companies over the past 24 hours—a last-ditch effort aimed at averting a strike with massive implications for the U.S. economy.

The unions, for their part, accused rail carriers of engaging in "corporate extortion" by blocking shipments and shuttering other operations before a single worker had walked off the job, a signal that companies were moving in the direction of a damaging lockout.

The White House has faced significant criticism over its role in the yearslong dispute: Last month, an emergency board formed by Biden recommended a compromise deal that excluded sick leave improvements that rail workers had been demanding and fell short in other key areas, including healthcare costs.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blocked a GOP effort to force rail workers to accept the emergency board's recommended agreement.