Chicago Metra schedule upended on some lines in anticipation of possible strike
CHICAGO (WLS) -- A transportation crisis may have been averted as railroad companies reached an agreement with unions early Thursday morning. Some Metra and Amtrak trains were already canceled for Thursday evening, in anticipation of a possible freight strike.
President Joe Biden said the tentative deal "will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruption of our economy."
"These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs: all hard-earned," Biden said. "The agreement is also a victory for railway companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will continue to be part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come."
In the tentative agreement reached between freight rail companies and unions, workers will now be able to take unpaid time off for medical and preventative care without penalty.
Better paid time off and quality of life improvements had been a major sticking point for the unions. A spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) said this is a huge change.
Workers would also receive an additional paid day off under the agreement.
The National Carriers' Conference Committee, which represents the nation's freight railroads, also detailed specifics of the possible deal, which include a 24% wage increase over five years for workers, with an immediate wage increase of 14% and five annual $1,000 lump sum payments.
U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced the deal just after 4 a.m.
Negotiations lasted for 20 hours.
Moments after the announcement, Walsh tweeted, "The Biden administration applauds all parties for reaching this hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal. Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country."
A source familiar with the matter told ABC News the tentative agreement will now be sent back to the unions for a vote.
A several-week "cooling off" period begins to make sure that if a vote isn't successful there isn't an immediate shutdown.
Companies like Amtrak and Metra were prepared to make major changes should a strike occur.
Amtrak already canceled long-distance routes across the country and lines that take travelers from Chicago to downstate Illinois.
Metra preemptively decided to cut service to major routes after 8 p.m. Thursday that bring commuters in and out of the city.
Glenda Kovac rides the BNSF line throughout the week, and said she was prepared to alter her work schedule had a deal not been met.
"I just drive to the station, which is a mile or so from my house, and hop on the train," she said. "That's why I came in today instead of tomorrow, so I could have the weekend to plan. I was going to have to drive in, so that's my only other option. There's no other option for us."
Others, like Joseph Myers, said "I would have just winged it, but I'm very glad I don't have to."
"I am delighted. I'm really sorry when there are labor disputes out there that leads to a strike. I would much rather people find a reasonable agreement," he said.
In a statement, Metra said, "We are relieved that the freight railroads and the unions have reached a tentative agreement and that our riders will not be impacted by what could have been a significant disruption to service and a setback in our efforts to recover from the pandemic. We would like to thank everyone who helped to reach this agreement. Our riders deserve safe, reliable and consistent service and we are grateful we will be able to continue to provide it."
Metra said later Thursday morning the Thursday trains that had been canceled will now run as scheduled.
"I got awakened in the middle of the night, but awakened by good news, so it's great," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Gillis said the past few days for the company were nerve-wracking, as they prepared to potentially cut routes, leaving thousands of commuters scrambling to find other ways to get to work.
"It was a little frustrating that we were going to be impacted, and we couldn't really do anything about it. Those four lines are half our ridership; I think we really would have seen how important Metra is to the city," he said.
Amtrak said, "Amtrak is working to quickly restore canceled trains and reaching out to impacted customers to accommodate on first available departures. Will provide update soon as information becomes available."
If a strike were to take place, economists estimate that it would have a $2 billion impact per day on the U.S. economy.
The deadline for a contract deal was 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Sun-Times Media, ABC News and Associated Press contributed to this report.