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Transportation secretary on averting rail strike that threatened major disruptions

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A massive rail strike that threatened major disruptions has been avoided for now. Rail carriers and unions representing thousands of workers have reached a tentative deal, which President Biden celebrated this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This agreement allows us to continue to rebuild a better America with an economy that truly works for working people and their families. Today is a win - and I mean it sincerely - a win for America.

MCCAMMON: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg helped negotiate the deal, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good to be with you.

MCCAMMON: How confident are you, first of all, that union members will ratify this deal?

BUTTIGIEG: I believe this is a deal that was reached in good faith that the parties came to after very intense conversations and a lot of clear thought into what they needed. So, of course, now it has to go up for ratification. But everybody is invested in that process being successful.

MCCAMMON: And assuming that it is, how soon should we expect to see the trains moving again?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, right away. But there are some impacts that came just even from the preparations for the possibility of a shutdown that started at the beginning of this week. So our Federal Rail Administration is going to continue coordinating with Amtrak and the rail carriers just to make sure that those ripple effects are smooth as they work their way through the system over the next two or three days.

MCCAMMON: Now, workers made clear during these negotiations that they don't just care about wages. The quality of life is also important - for instance, being able to take time off when they're sick and not face punishment for that. What kind of a message do you think this sends to other employers?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, this is something that we see a lot, in particular when it comes to essential transportation workers because of the nature of their work. Similarly with truck drivers, you know, some of the issues that have really impacted the availability of truck drivers are not just things relating to their dollars and cents compensation but the ability to have places - safe places to park and rest. In their case, even something like access to bathrooms - these basic quality-of-life issues that stand alongside compensation as a very important matter. That's what you saw here, too, clearly a very important issue for the workers in terms of how their sick time was addressed, especially for workers who are on call for long periods of time. And because of the nature of this transportation business often requires very unusual things that most 9-to-5 workers don't deal with, I think that will continue to be something that is expressed as a real priority for workers in negotiations and the public dialogue about what it means to treat essential workers as essential.

MCCAMMON: What do you think it does mean?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, what it means is that it's important to have competitive pay and a high quality of life. For the unions, it means, of course, pay increases and improvements in quality of life for the railroads. It means a way to attract and retain great workers who are the key to making rail operation work. And for the country, it means avoiding the disruptions that could have accompanied any kind of shutdown or slowdown.

MCCAMMON: Now, a rail strike does appear to be averted for the moment, but West Coast dockworkers are still in negotiations about their new contract. That, of course, is another key piece of the supply chain. How hopeful are you, Secretary, that those issues can also be resolved?

BUTTIGIEG: Very hopeful but also continuing to monitor closely. You know, our supply chains are only as strong as our most congested link. And we've seen that throughout the pandemic period and recovery from the worst days of it, whether it's ships, trucks, warehouses or trains. All of these things need to be working well in order for our economy to thrive.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, maybe on that note, President Biden said in response to the news of the tentative deal that he's hopeful that similar agreements can be struck in other fields as well. What else might be in the works?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, when you look at the things that are important to the transportation workers, it does, of course, vary by sector. But compensation will always be important. Quality of life matters, and that means different things to a rail worker than it might mean to a flight attendant or to a longshore worker. But what it all adds up to is making sure that people can build a career, support their families, be satisfied with their career choices. And all of that adds up into a functioning supply chain who, you know, no matter how much infrastructure we build - and even today we're announcing 26 places where we're deploying $1.5 billion - that's just a piece of the puzzle in helping build our physical infrastructure, supporting supply chain. But for all of that, at the end of the day, the most important element of our supply chain is people.

MCCAMMON: My last question for you, Secretary Buttigieg, is just does this deal go far enough? I mean, if it's successful, it will make conditions better for these workers in some ways. But as you've alluded to, we've seen other labor shortages in other pieces of the supply chain. What is the administration doing to push the railroads and other critical industries to just do what needs to be done to attract and retain these workers and avoid these kinds of disruptions in the future.

BUTTIGIEG: This is exactly what falls to the parties to come to agreement on, a solution that makes sense for the workers and for the railroads. Again, every industry, every sector is a little bit different. But what they all have common is it's people make it all possible. And we need to do right by the people who we count on for transportation and for goods movement, whether we realize it or not.

MCCAMMON: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, thank you so much for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Karen Zamora