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What we know about the railroad labor talks

A freight train in Atlanta, Ga.DUSTIN CHAMBERS/NYT

Congressional leaders said Tuesday that they would pass legislation to prevent a nationwide rail strike, agreeing with President Joe Biden that a strike could shut down a critical piece of the economy and potentially inflame an inflation problem in the United States.

On Tuesday, Biden met with the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate to urge them to take a rare step of imposing a labor agreement on the rail workers. The White House helped broker the agreement with union leaders in September, but it has failed to win support from workers at all of the unions involved.

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The unions have said they plan to strike in early December if a deal isn’t reached. The effort to avert a shutdown shows how critical the rail network is to the U.S. economy. A strike would make it virtually impossible to transport the vast numbers of products — from oil to grain — that are carried on trains in the United States, and could have a devastating effect on the economic recovery.

What is the dispute between railroads and unions about?

Rail workers have said their top concerns are the grueling, unpredictable schedules that take a toll on their personal lives and their health. Many have complained that extended time on the road and long stretches of on-call work make it difficult to see a doctor for an illness or injury, or to be present at family milestones like a child’s birthday.

Rail carriers say employees can generally attend to these needs by taking paid vacation. The workers say their employers limit their options for taking paid time off in practice — for example, by narrowing the windows in which they can take vacation or rejecting a requested personal day.

The agreement reached in September would have allowed workers to take time off up to three times each year for a routine medical appointment without risking disciplinary action, but many workers said that the concession was insufficient and that it did not address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a business model that seeks to minimize labor costs and results in chronic understaffing.

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What was in the tentative deal that the railroads and unions negotiated?

The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, said in September that new contracts would include a 24% increase in wages in the five years from 2020 through 2024. There would also be a payout of $11,000, on average, when the agreement is ratified, the association said.

In addition, the agreement gave workers one additional paid day off and an ability to attend medical appointments without penalty, labor unions said, measures that are intended to ease what workers said was a rigid scheduling system that didn’t allow them to take care of their health or take personal time they needed.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers said the deal would also freeze workers’ monthly health care contributions, ensuring those costs would not increase during the next round of contract negotiations.

How have the unions voted on it the deal?

Not every union has rejected the deal. The SMART Transportation Division, which represents freight rail conductors, narrowly voted down the contract in November.

Members of a second large union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which primarily represents engineers, voted to approve the agreement, with 53.5% in favor.

Three smaller unions also covered by the agreement — the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers — all voted down the deal.

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What’s at stake for travel, supply chains and inflation?

A strike could lead to significant economic disruptions. Federal data shows that railways transported about 28% of U.S. freight before the pandemic, including key industrial commodities such as coal, lumber, ore and chemicals, making them the second-largest mode of freight transport, behind trucking, which is about 40%. Freight rail carriers are also important in moving automobiles and their components.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, wrote in September that the country would need more than 460,000 additional long-haul trucks each day if the nation’s freight rails shut down. The group said such a large shift toward trucking would be impossible because the industry lacked sufficient equipment and faced a shortage of tens of thousands of drivers.

The labor negotiations did not involve Amtrak employees, but in September when a strike was looming, the company said it would cancel long-distance passenger trains because it uses freight tracks that could be disrupted by work stoppages.

Rail freight is the centerpiece of the global supply chain, which has already been disrupted by the pandemic, with cargo ships, trains and trucks facing continued difficulties transporting goods. A strike would slow down the circulation of goods within the United States and with overseas trading partners.

The rail system also brings some crude oil from Canada into the United States, and helps export American gasoline and diesel to Mexico. A disruption to those movements push up gas prices, which have steadily fallen since June. Fuel prices are a major driver of overall inflation.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.