By all accounts, Walsh and his deputy Julie Su have made a huge difference, helping facilitate the last 20 hours of talks. As Politico reported:
“Secretary Walsh was a constant,” said AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan.
The positive outcome was highly doubtful when emergency talks began. “We didn’t expect a deal to come out of this,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the transportation division of SMART, one of the unions. “It was quite hostile to come in, to start, and we had a tough road.”
Things started to “change drastically once we got to the Department of Labor and Secretary Walsh and Assistant Secretary Su got involved and kind of facilitated the mediation,” Ferguson said. They “helped move the discussions forward and get the minds working”.
On Thursday, a cloudy-eyed Walsh told reporters: “This is a contract that respects the workers. It’s a contract that helps carriers and allows us to avoid what I think would be a national disaster.
He emphasized that his role was to keep the parties around the table. “This contract negotiation has been going on for over two years, so it wasn’t necessarily a love party when we started the night,” Walsh said of the 8 p.m. negotiations. “But at the end of the night, as we approached the end of the contract, there was a lot of mutual respect there.”
Walsh brought credibility to the talks with his gentleness and understanding of the details of 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 crucial. It reminds us that picking Cabinet members with expertise and people skills, rather than just throwing seats at political cronies, can be a vital part – pardon the pun – in keeping the trains running.
The unionized workers have won significant gains from the talks: a 24% wage increase over three years, a lump sum payment to catch up on their back pay (after the last contract expired two years ago), time off to see a doctor (a major concern for workers) and an extra day off. But the real winner was the US economy. With up to 40% of US goods transported by rail, a strike would have been devastating, especially at a time when the Federal Reserve is scrambling to bring down inflation and the White House is trying to untangle supply chains.
The deal allowed President Biden to take a lap of honor in the Rose Garden. He said: “This agreement is validation – validation of what I have always believed: unions and management can work together – can work together for the benefit of all.” He added: “To the American people: this agreement can avoid the significant damage that any shutdown would have caused. Our nation’s rail system is the backbone of our supply chain.
He concluded by recalling the economic progress made by the economy. “With unemployment still near record highs and signs of progress in cutting costs, this agreement allows us to continue to build a better America with an economy that really works for workers and their families,” he said. concluded. “Today is a victory – and I say this sincerely – a victory for America.”
The contracts have yet to be ratified by the respective unions, but after such tough 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- the union administration never supported.
For rolling up his sleeves to broker a critical deal and avert economic disaster, we can say, well done, Secretary Walsh. (And get some sleep!)