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Mediators Help Save the Economy

Originally published on Indisputably

The news media have a well-known bad-news bias.  If something bad is happening or – better yet – threatening to happen, the headlines scream of impending disaster.

Good news, not so much coverage.

If something good happens, including averted potential disasters, ho-hum.  There is much less coverage and it’s much less prominent.

Such was the case of the threatened railroad strike last week.

For two years, six of the largest freight carriers and twelve unions representing 115,000 railroad workers had negotiated unsuccessfully.  In July, President Biden appointed an emergency board in July which recommended wage increases but did not address the sick leave issues that the unions were concerned about.  Under the law, the unions could not strike until a “cooling off period” expired last Friday.  With a strike deadline looming, the news media were trumpeting the serious consequences of a strike.

As Politico reported, “A rail strike affecting 40 percent of the nation’s freight traffic at a cost of $2 billion a day could have severely damaged an economy already suffering from supply chain snarls, the highest inflation in four decades and a Federal Reserve pumping hard on the brakes to bring prices down.”

Unfortunately, the culture of labor contract negotiations often involves tough adversarial bargaining up to the last minute before reaching agreement.  It doesn’t always work and sometimes unions go on strike and employers lock out workers.

In last week’s railroad negotiations, mediation by Biden Administration officials was critical to averting an economic calamity.  In particular, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Deputy Secretary Julie Su took the lead in a mediation effort including multiple Administration officials.  Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote, “Walsh brought credibility to the talks with his mild manner and his grasp of the details in the complex, multi-contract arrangement.  His past experience as head of the Building and Construction Trades Council and as mayor of Boston (where unions often sat on the other side of the table) was critical.”

Washington Post article describes how Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also played a key role, as did other cabinet secretaries, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.  President Biden made a 9 P.M. call to the negotiators that helped cinch the deal.  It’s a tentative agreement that is subject to approval by the various unions.

In keeping with news media conventions, there was little coverage of the negotiations, mediation, or effects of the agreement on the American public.  Although the negotiations are conducted in private, news media have a lot of experience reporting on private matters.  And they certainly could cover the conditions that the workers were fighting for — the right to take time off for medical appointments.  There should be a lot of public interest in the pressure on the workers and the risk to the public of trains run by sick workers.

To be fair to the media, they probably are reflecting audience (lack of) interest to a large extent.

Now that this possible bad news is not threatening, the media can go back to publicizing cruel stunts like politicians using poor immigrants as political pawns.


John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE

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