Talks aimed at averting a freight rail strike that could cripple U.S. supply chains continued overnight Thursday. If the strike continues early Friday, it could push up the prices of goods, from gasoline to food to cars.
Two rail unions, representing more than 50,000 engineers and conductors who make up the two-person crews that run the trains, are threatening the first rail strike in 30 years from 12:01 a.m. ET on Friday. Union leaders and union negotiators in the railways began Meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at his office in Washington, DC, at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.
The talks were still ongoing 6 hours later at 3 a.m. ET Thursday, a Department of Labor spokesperson told CNN.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that “all parties must stay at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and achieve to an agreement”. A shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to prevent this.
The Labor Department asked both management and workers not to comment on the status of the talks, and neither responded to a request for comment.
Almost 30% of the country’s freight moves on the country’s railways. Many vital sectors – including oil refining, agriculture, automotive and other manufacturing industries, as well as imports of consumer goods – depend on the railways to function. While a short strike would have limited effect, economists say a strike lasting a week or more could have serious economic consequences.
The railways announced last Friday that they had stopped accepting shipments of hazardous materials, including fertilizers, as well as safety-related materials, due to fears that trains would stop immediately wherever they are found once the strike has begun. On Wednesday, many stopped accepting deliveries of agricultural products.
Union Pacific Members
(UNP) train crews were advised by the railroad Tuesday evening that if they are in the middle of a trip when the strike begins at 12:01 a.m. EST Friday, they must park and secure their train and await transportation.
Norfolk Southern Freight Railway
(NSC) plans to use management employees to operate a limited number of trains in the event of a strike on Friday. This could allow critical materials to reach their destinations, such as chlorine in water treatment plants.
“We will have some capacity. It’s not a very good capacity, but we’ll have it if it happens,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNN Business on Wednesday. “How we’re going to use them is still being planned.”
Spielmaker said the railways still hope to reach an agreement with the unions and avoid such a situation. Freight railroads CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific declined to say whether they would use management employees to operate trains in the event of a strike.
The threat of the strike could rumble the displacements across the country. Many Amtrak commuter and local trains travel on railroads owned by freight companies. If striking engineers park their trans on Friday morning, trips could be disrupted. Amtrak announced Wednesday that it has canceled all long-distance trains starting Thursday and announced that 10 additional routes will be closed Thursday evening. Amtrak said additional delays or cancellations are possible.
The effort to avoid a strike is a major test for President Joe Biden and his White House, which has positioned itself as one of the most pro-worker administrations of all time. At the same time, he also wants to avoid any potential shocks to the economy, especially with the midterm elections just seven weeks away.
Railway workers are governed by different labor laws than most workers, which limits their freedom to strike and allows for greater government intervention. In July, Biden issued an order that prevented a strike at that time and set up a panel, known as the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), to try to find a solution to the dispute. It also imposed a 60-day cooling-off period during which unions could not strike and management could not lock out workers.
But Biden cannot order the railroads to continue operating after the cooling-off period ends on Friday. Only Congress can act to keep workers on the job if there is no deal. Senator Richard Durbin, the second-highest ranking member of the Democratic Senate leadership, told CNN this week that congressional action was unlikely, despite business groups calling on Congress to act. The Senate is in recess on Friday and many members of Congress are flying to London to attend Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
The PEB’s recommendations called for workers to get an immediate 14% wage increase, plus wage arrears dating back to 2020. It also called for a 24% wage increase over the five-year term of the contract from 2020 to 2024, and cash bonuses. of $1,000 per year.
But he did not address the staffing shortages and scheduling rules that have become the main sticking point of the dispute. Engineers’ and conductors’ unions say the railways require their members to be “on call” and ready to report for work on short notice as often as seven days a week. Leaders of both unions say their members would not accept contracts without changes to these work rules.
There are more than 50,000 other railroad union members who maintain track, operate signals, dispatch trains and work as mechanics, among other jobs. But they are not subject to the same working rules, and these unions have already agreed to tentative agreements with the railways based on PEB recommendations.
One such union, the Machinists, announced on Wednesday that its members had voted to reject its tentative work agreement. There are about 5,000 union members on the railroads who work as locomotive machinists, track material mechanics and plant maintenance personnel.
Their rejection of the proposed contract is not an immediate setback in their efforts to avoid the strike. The union has said it will not go on strike until the end of the month as it tries to secure a change in the tentative agreement that its members will accept. But it’s a sign of the complexity the railroads face in striking deals with a dozen different unions that are also acceptable to rank-and-file members.
Two other unions, the Carmen Railway Brotherhood and the Transport Communications Union, which together have 11,000 members, ratified agreements on Wednesday.
– CNN’s Matt McFarland, Ali Zaslav, Kate Sullivan, Phil Mattingly, Maegan Vazquez and Andrew Millman contributed to this report