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Amtrak puts brakes on strike with accord favoring unions

The tentative contract includes back pay and wage increases.

January 19, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Facing a possible strike that could have stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters, Amtrak reached a preliminary deal Friday that apparently heavily favored the railroad's nine unions, which have worked for years without a contract.

The tentative contract includes back pay totaling more than three times what Amtrak was offering and none of the concessions on work rules that Amtrak had been seeking, said Joel Parker, a spokesman for the Transportation Communications International Union and a lead negotiator.

Although the month-end strike was considered unlikely, the mere prospect of it had regional rail services across the Eastern Seaboard scrambling in recent days to put backup plans in place.

"We have averted a possible strike that could have had a crippling effect on the lives of millions of Americans," Amtrak Chief Executive Alex Kummant said in a statement.

Details of the agreement will not be released until it is ratified by affected union members in the next several weeks, according to Amtrak.

People familiar with the labor agreement, some speaking on condition of anonymity because the details had not been formally announced, said it adopted the recommendations of a presidential emergency board report issued Dec. 30. The board's report, which recommended that Amtrak grant back wages to its workers, triggered a 30-day countdown until a strike became legal.

Included in the tentative deal are wage increases that average 35.2% over the life of the agreement from January 2000 through Dec. 31, 2009 -- or about 3.1% a year, said W. Dan Pickett, head of the Passenger Rail Labor Coalition, who was involved in the deal.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said there appeared to be a "pretty universal feeling" that the agreement would be ratified.

Michael Troy, an Amtrak communications and signal maintainer and union representative in Downingtown, Pa., said workers had faced increasing economic hardships.

"Every Christmas got harder and harder for the workers," he said, with some forced to work overtime or take on second jobs to make house and car payments.

"Finally you can feel the morale," Troy said. "There seems to be some hope here."

If Amtrak workers had walked out for the first time in the railroad's 36-year history, the 71,000 people who use the service every day would not have been the only ones affected. Hundreds of thousands of people who ride commuter trains also would have suffered because many such services depend on Amtrak employees or infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast.

"I knew they would settle," said Letti O'Loughlin, a real estate agent who lives in East Orange, N.J., and commutes to New York. "You shut down Penn Station, which is the hub of transportation in New York City, and it would be absolute chaos."

If a strike had occurred and all the rail commuters had to drive, it "would have been almost impossible to get through the traffic," said Loy Carlos of Huntington, N.Y., who also works in real estate.

The labor dispute, which had continued despite years of unsuccessful mediation, involved about 10,000 employees whose last contract ended Dec. 31, 1999.

Amtrak, which depends heavily on federal subsidies, had been concerned about how it would afford the back wages, which would average nearly $13,000 per employee. The railroad had offered to give each worker a lump signing bonus of $4,500 instead of back pay. Amtrak had said the back pay would cost the company about $150 million more than what it had offered.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called the deal a relief to millions of travelers who rely on rail.

"I am determined to help get Amtrak funding it might need for next year, but in the meantime, this deal is long overdue after years of unfair bargaining by the administration and Amtrak," Menendez said.

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