WASHINGTON — The nation's freight railroads and two labor unions representing 26,500 railroad employees reached a tentative agreement Thursday to avoid a strike that threatened to halt shipments of consumer goods three weeks before Christmas.
A third union agreed to a 60-day cooling-off period that averts an immediate strike.
Details of the tentative agreements were not released.
If the unions hadn't agreed, railroad employees were poised to strike as early as Monday, a possibility that prompted retailers, automakers, electric utilities and other big rail customers to plead with lawmakers in Congress to intervene. A strike also could have disrupted long-distance Amtrak routes and commuter train service in some of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas.
Dennis Pierce, the president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, told the union's members in a statement that while the tentative deal wasn't everything they wanted, it was better to let members vote on the new labor contract than have the Republican-controlled House of Representatives dictate the terms.
"I said that a voluntary settlement was preferable because you control the outcome through the ratification process, instead of allowing a third party — in this case, a highly unpredictable Congress — to control the outcome," Pierce said.
The American Train Dispatchers Association also agreed Thursday to the tentative deal.
In a statement, Edward Hamberger, the president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, a Washington-based industry group, said that railroads had been working for two years to reach a voluntary agreement with the 13 unions representing employees. With Thursday's agreements, only one union — the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees — has not reached a deal. The cooling-off period covering that negotiation ends Feb. 8.
"Freight rail touches nearly every sector of our economy, and we are committed to finalizing the remaining agreement so that we can continue to deliver for the tens of thousands of American businesses that rely on rail, and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who use passenger rail to commute to work every day," he said.
Railroads carry more than 40 percent of the nation's freight, and they have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years thanks to changes in the way goods are shipped internationally, as well as big challenges facing the trucking industry, including higher fuel prices, worsening highway congestion, new safety regulations and driver shortages.
Unions representing railroads had wanted new labor agreements that shared more of the railroads' prosperity with employees, in the form of salary and health care benefits. Railroad companies had argued that their employees were already well compensated.
Pierce noted in his statement that the railroads' wage terms "are reasonable" and that the unions have taken steps to "mitigate the impact" of the conditions on health care.
For their part, the railroads were relieved to have prevented the spectacle of trainloads of consumer goods stopped in their tracks during a critical time for the nation's retailers. The White House and Congress didn't want to see empty store shelves when the still-fragile economic recovery depends on consumer spending and unemployment is still 9 percent.
"Everyone wins when we reach voluntary agreements," said A. Kenneth Gradia, the chairman of the National Carriers' Conference Committee, which bargained on behalf of the railroad companies. "In a tough economy, these agreements offer a terrific deal for rail employees."
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