union pacific train silver bow montana
Union Pacific employees take over a freight train from their coworkers near Silver Bow, Montana, in May 2019. Credit: Justin Franz

With less than 24 hours to go before much of the nation’s rail network could have come to a screeching halt, President Joe Biden announced early Thursday morning that a deal has been brokered between the nation’s largest freight railroads and labor unions representing tens of thousands of railroaders. 

Both sides had until 12:01 a.m. Friday to come to an agreement before either the railroads could start locking employees out or the unions could go on strike. A work stoppage seemed so likely earlier this week that freight railroads began to secure hazardous material shipments and Amtrak began canceling trains, including the Empire Builder serving Montana’s Hi-Line. 

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After the agreement was announced on Thursday morning, an Amtrak spokesperson said long-distance trains, including the Empire Builder, would resume regular service on Friday. 

“This is a win for the economy and for the American people,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “Rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs. I thank both the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith.”

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen still need to vote on the new contract, but union leaders have hailed the deal as a win for railroaders. As part of the deal, workers will get a 24% pay raise over five years, as well as annual bonuses totaling $5,000. But pay was never the primary sticking point for many union members. Rather, workers wanted guarantees of a better work-life balance as well as relief from what they have called “draconian” employee attendance policies that penalized them even for taking days off to see a doctor. Among the most controversial was BNSF Railway’s “Hi-Viz” policy, which assigned all employees points that they could lose or earn depending on their availability to work. According to a press release from the unions, the new national contract will provide employees time away from work to attend medical appointments without being punished. 

“This is a win for the economy and for the American people. Rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs. I thank both the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith.”

President Joe Biden

Railroad-labor relations are governed by a nearly century-old law called the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Under that law, railroads and unions have conducted collective bargaining negotiations on a multi-employer and multi-union basis for more than 90 years. Nearly all the major freight railroads in the United States — including BNSF and Union Pacific, which both operate in Montana — partake in the national talks. Typically, the national bargaining method has been successful at avoiding strikes or lockouts that could cripple the American economy, and there have been only two days of service disruptions resulting from contract talks in the last 30 years. The last national railroad work stoppage was in 1992. But this latest round of talks was more contentious than most. 

This week, as the deadline for a possible strike or lockout approached, federal officials, including Biden, got involved to help broker a last-minute deal. After more than 20 hours of negotiations that went into the early morning hours on Thursday, both sides struck a deal. The tentative agreement, however, is no guarantee that the union’s members will accept the deal. In fact, earlier this week, the members of a smaller union rejected a contract that had been previously accepted by its leadership. That union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents railroad mechanical workers, agreed to continue talking with the railroads until at least Sept. 29.

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Looking for workers

Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.