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Examining the railway labor deal. Is it a win for both sides?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic and bruised by a series of natural disasters, America's supply chain barely avoided another blow this week. A rail strike was averted with just hours to spare. The Biden administration brokered a last-minute deal in the early hours of yesterday morning between freight companies and unions. Biden called it a big win for both sides and a big win for America. For analysis of this deal, we are joined by Art Wheaton. He is director of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Thank you for being with us this morning.

ART WHEATON: It is my pleasure.

MARTIN: Is it true that this is a big win for both sides, as the president suggests?

WHEATON: It is a big win for both sides. It's a big win for the company, big win for the government, big win for the employees.

MARTIN: Well, if it was - if it's such a big win, it would suggest that the solution was obvious. So why was this so difficult for so long?

WHEATON: Negotiations are always difficult because everybody is trying to fight to get as much as they can for their constituents. And it's not unusual for negotiations to go close to or right up to the strike deadline.

MARTIN: So this was about pay to a big degree. But as I understand it, it was also about burnout. It was about workers demanding more reprieve, more work-life balance. Did they get that?

WHEATON: They got everything that they were asking for, for the most part. They'd always want more of a work-life balance. But it really wasn't over money. Money wasn't the big sticking point for this negotiations. A lot of it is over trying to be able to go to the doctor and not get fired, that there were some very, very strict attendance policies that was creating havoc for the employees that were on call, many times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that can be very difficult for work-life balance. Trying to go to a kid's football game or going to a doctor's appointment, all of those could get you in trouble if you did not plan months in advance.

MARTIN: And, I mean, this happened - people were stretched so thin because there just weren't enough people, right? That's because the railroad industry slashed almost 30% of its workforce six years ago. Why did that happen in the first place?

WHEATON: A lot of times, it has to do with trying to get higher profits so that you can look good for Wall Street to get more investment. So they try to reduce cost as much as they can. And it's happened in many different industries, including health care, where they don't have enough people to do it. And then after you start looking for more people, if the work-life balance is not very attractive, then they can't get new workers that are willing to sign up.

MARTIN: Do you expect the deal to be ratified by the union rank-and-file, because that is still a hurdle that needs to be cleared?

WHEATON: I do expect it to get ratified. Had they come up with a deal, say, two or three weeks ago or a month ago, it may not have been ratified because a lot of times, the employees or the workers want to know, did you fight as hard as you could to get what you needed at the table? And I don't think there's anyone who doesn't think that both sides worked really hard to try to come to an agreement. So if you get the president, the secretary of the transportation, secretary of labor all directly involved in the negotiations, you know you tried really hard.

MARTIN: I mean, this is a very significant deal. It averted a crisis when it comes to America's already vulnerable supply chain. Are there lessons to be learned from how this negotiation went down?

WHEATON: The lessons are - is, from the union's perspective, is if you all stick together and you work really hard, you can try to come up with a resolution. And I think the lesson learned for the government is the best solutions come at the bargaining table. So that - this was not something where Congress said, here's your deal. Take it or leave it. This was something where both the company and the union were able to sit down and find an agreement that works. It's not what everybody wants, but it's the best solution that both sides can live with.

MARTIN: What did labor have to compromise? What did the freight companies get?

WHEATON: Freight companies got continued workforce. And the workers had to give up not getting the amount of flexibility they wanted. They got improved flexibility, but they did not get everything they wanted, and they never do. And the employers keep the trains running and they can continue to make billions of dollars in profits and keep the freight moving.

MARTIN: Are Wheaton of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

WHEATON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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