After brokering a 20-hour negotiating session between freight rail companies and employee unions that ultimately avoided a strike, Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh said Thursday that he knew “this had to be resolved” or the American economy would face devastating consequences.
“There was a lot of pressure there,” the 55-year-old former Boston mayor said in a phone interview with the Globe.
The successful negotiations, completed just hours before a crucial deadline that would have allowed the workers to strike, quickly thrust Walsh into the national spotlight. A strike from the unions, which represent tens of thousands of workers, could have triggered widespread shipping delays, including disruptions in food distribution, and a potential tsunami of price increases, worsening the inflation rate that in July reached a four-decade high. A work stoppage from the freight rail unions also threatened to complicate commuter rail systems throughout the United States.
“I knew the consequences going into this,” Walsh said.
Walsh, who has extensive experience negotiating contracts both as a local labor leader and mayor of Boston, said he had started the work week encouraging both sides to come to an agreement. On Tuesday morning, he told them that if they did not have a deal by the end of the work day to come to his office on Wednesday.
Come Wednesday morning, representatives from the unions and rail companies arrived at the office, with a conference room designated for each side and with Walsh’s office acting as a go-between space for the representatives. According to Walsh, there were three issues that the two sides were at loggerheads over. One of them pertained to work rules and was ironed out early on Wednesday. The other two dealt with health insurance premiums and medical leave.
“I didn’t suggest to them what to do, what not to do,” said Walsh of his role in the negotiations. “If they asked my opinion, which they did several times, both sides, I gave my opinion of how to get to the final deal … that went on for hours.”
Around midnight, Walsh said, he felt like they were inching toward a deal. Ultimately, he said, both sides made concessions, with the final significant hurdle being cleared when they each accepted the union recommendations for health care premiums.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the deal now heads to union members for a ratification vote, which is a standard procedure in labor talks. While the vote is pending, workers have agreed not to strike.
Walsh ticked off various aspects of the contract as victories for workers: an increase of 24 percent in worker wages over five years, a cap on health insurance premiums, and the ability for workers to take time off for medical appointments without penalty, although such leave would be unpaid under the tentative agreement.
That last provision was key, said Walsh. Previously, it was difficult for workers with no fixed schedule to make doctor appointments, since they often did not know when they would be working or when they would be off. The deal also includes one additional paid leave day a year, according to the Associated Press.
“This is a good contract,” said Walsh.
Walsh estimated that he was in his office guiding the negotiations from 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to 5:30 a.m. Thursday.
“I wasn’t quite sure when I walked in in the morning how to get [the deal done], but as the day went on it got a little clearer to me that there’s a deal to be had here,” he said. “Both sides are not as far apart as they might have thought they were.”
He added, “Just keeping them at the table was really important.”
Walsh, whose rise in Boston politics was rooted in organized labor, said the key to contract negotiations is to have “trust on both sides.”
“If we didn’t solve this contract, this is a very different story,” he said.
As mayor of Boston, Walsh negotiated contracts with the city’s various municipal unions. More recently, he helped end labor disputes ranging from a Worcester nurses strike to the standoff that threatened to scuttle the Major League Baseball season.
Walsh was 21 years old when he became a member of Local 223 in Boston, which his father had joined in the 1950s after emigrating from Ireland and his uncle later led. Walsh, a state representative for 16 years, went on to also serve as president of the union, then was the head of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
And union support helped propel Walsh to two decades of election victories in his hometown. Walsh left Boston City Hall toward the end of his second mayoral term last year to become the nation’s labor secretary.
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.