The threat of a costly national railroad strike during the busy holiday season has been averted after the freight rail industry settled labor disputes with two of its unions and agreed to extend talks with a third.
Without the agreements, the railway unions could have begun striking as early as Tuesday, when a federal "cooling off" period was set to expire. Retailers warned that a rail strike would cost businesses and consumers $2 billion a day and prove especially damaging during the most important shipping season of the year.
The National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the railroads in bargaining talks, said its negotiators would try to reach an agreement with the final union before Feb. 8.
The agreements late Thursday with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the American Train Dispatchers Association came just hours after Republican House leaders said they would move to vote Friday on emergency legislation to prevent a work stoppage.
The group of more than 30 railroads _ including Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe _ has been trying for more than a year to reach collective bargaining agreements with 13 unions representing about 132,000 workers.
President Barack Obama appointed a five-member emergency board in October to mediate the dispute. The White House action averted a strike for at least 60 days, ending Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.
With the help of federal mediators, the railroads have now settled with 12 of the 13 unions in the current bargaining round. The only unsettled union is the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which has about 25,000 workers.
"Everyone wins when we reach voluntary agreements," said Kenneth Gradia, chairman of the National Carriers' Conference Committee, which bargains on behalf of the railroads. "In a tough economy, these agreements offer a terrific deal for rail employees. They lock in well-above market wage increases of more than 20 percent over six years, far exceeding recent union settlements in other industries."
The last time a freight railroad strike occurred, in 1991, Congress quickly passed legislation that ended it within a day. A 1982 strike lasted four days.