WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh held railroads and unions at the negotiating table for 20 hours, fueled by sandwiches and fried ziti, to negotiate an employment deal early Thursday.
At the urging of President Joe Biden and the US economy in balance, there was no room for failure and no time for a traditional style of negotiations involving rounds of document exchange, he said in an interview.
“I wanted to get this deal done,” said Walsh, a former Boston mayor who canceled a trip to Ireland and a speech to Irish lawmakers to mediate the negotiations.
After more than two years of negotiations, railroads and unions were faced with a 12:01 p.m. Friday deadline to reach a contract and avoid a rail shutdown. That would cost the US economy $2 billion a day by stranding critical goods, closing factories and crippling industries and travelers.
The conversations started in a conference room and ended in Walsh’s office for more than five hours into the wee hours.
The two sides were willing to compromise but had strong views, Walsh said. He wasn’t sure they would come to a deal.
“The unions were very persistent in what they needed and the companies were very persistent in what they wouldn’t give up,” Walsh said. “There were certain points where I said to everyone, ‘Let’s not forget that we’re trying to get a contract and just keep going back and forth.'”
When the parties arrived early Wednesday, they had the outline of a deal on work rules. “We were able to get that done pretty quickly,” said Walsh.
Walsh fed the sides sandwiches and coffee for lunch Wednesday, then baked ziti from a local restaurant for dinner. “It wasn’t fancy, but it was good,” Walsh said. “During dinner, there was a lot of negotiation, so people kind of ate as they had a moment.”
The perseverance paid off. After midnight, the parties returned to Walsh with a compromise on a thorny issue – a union demand for significant changes to personal days for employees on non-fixed schedules.
The final hurdle was health care, and they eventually agreed to maintain a cap on staff costs.
“I didn’t celebrate until I had initials on the document,” Walsh said. He called the director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese, to tell him the good news Thursday morning.
Walsh said it was a good contract for both employees and employers. He urged both sides to start the next contract talks earlier to avoid a repeat of the last-minute negotiations.
Biden met with government officials, railroad and labor leaders at the White House after the deal was announced and paid tribute to Walsh “for his tireless 24-hour work.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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