Opinion by Jennifer Rubin for The Washington Post.
As a former labor lawyer, I can attest that when heading into the final hours of a labor negotiation, after months if not years of haggling, both parties can be frustrated, tired and angry. The intervention of a third-party mediator can therefore be critical to avoid a work stoppage.
In the case of the averted railway workers strike this week, that role was played by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
By all accounts, Walsh and his deputy Julie Su made a huge difference, helping to facilitate the final 20 hours of talks.
As Politico reported:
“Secretary Walsh was a constant,” AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan said.
The positive outcome was very much in doubt when the emergency talks began. “We didn’t expect an agreement to come out of this,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART’s Transportation Division, one of the unions. “It was pretty hostile going in, to get started, and we’ve had a rough road.”
Things began to “drastically change once we got to the Department of Labor and Secretary Walsh and Deputy Secretary Su got involved and kind of facilitated mediation,” Ferguson said. They “helped get discussions going on and get the minds working.”
On Thursday, a bleary-eyed Walsh told reporters, “It’s a contract that respects the workers. It’s a contract that helps the carriers and allows us the opportunity to avert what would be, I think, a national catastrophe.”
He stressed that his role was keeping the parties at the table. “This contract negotiation has been going on for over two years so it wasn’t necessarily a lovefest when we started the night,” Walsh said of the 20-hour negotiations. “But at the end of the night, as we got towards the end of the contract, there was a lot of mutual respect there.”
Walsh brought credibility to the talks with his mild manner and his grasp of the details in the complex, multi-contract arrangement. His past experience as head of the Building and Construction Trades Council and as mayor of Boston (where unions often sat on the other side of the table) was critical. This is a reminder that picking Cabinet members with expertise and people skills, rather than simply throwing seats to political cronies, can be a vital part of — pardon the pun — keeping the trains running.
The union workers got significant gains from the talks: a 24 percent pay raise over three years, a lump-sum payment to catch their salaries up (after the last contract expired two years ago), time off to see a doctor (a key concern of workers) and an additional day off. But the real winner was the U.S. economy. With up to 40 percent of American products moved by train, a strike would have been devastating, especially at a moment when the Federal Reserve is furiously working to bring down inflation and the White House has been trying to untangle supply chains.
The deal allowed President Biden to take a victory lap in the Rose Garden. He said, “This agreement is validation — validation of what I’ve always believed: Unions and management can work together — can work together for the benefit of everyone.” He added, “To the American people: This agreement can avert the significant damage that any shutdown would have brought. Our nation’s rail system is the backbone of our supply chain.”
He closed with a reminder of the economic progress the economy has made. “With unemployment still near record lows and signs of progress in lowering costs, this agreement allows us to continue to rebuild a better America with an economy that truly works for working people and their families,” he concluded. “Today is a win — and I mean it sincerely — a win for America.”
The contracts still must be ratified by the respective unions, but after such an arduous negotiation and a collective sigh of relief, union members will be hard-pressed to turn down a deal that the White House — which describes itself as the “most pro-union” administration ever —has backed.
For rolling up his sleeves to broker a critical deal and avert an economic disaster, we can say, well done, Secretary Walsh. (And get some sleep!)
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