Two railroad unions, representing more than 50,000 engineers and conductors who make up the two-man crews that run the trains, are threatening the first railroad strike in 30 years as of 12:01 a.m. ET Friday. Union leaders and railroad labor negotiators began meeting with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in his office in Washington, DC, at 9:00 a.m. ET Wednesday.
Talks were still ongoing 18 hours later at 3 a.m. ET Thursday, a Labor Department spokesman told CNN.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that “all sides must remain at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement. A halt from us.” freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid that.”
The Ministry of Labor asked both management and workers not to comment on the state of the talks, and did not respond to a request for comment.
Nearly 30% of the country’s freight is on the country’s railways. Many vital sectors – including oil refining, agriculture, automotive and other manufacturing, plus consumer goods imports – depend on the railways for their operation. 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, over concerns that trains will stop immediately wherever they are once the strike begins. On Wednesday, many stopped accepting shipments of agricultural products.
Members of Union Pacific (UNP) train crews were informed by railroads late Tuesday that if they are in the middle of a journey when the strike begins at 12:01 a.m. EST Friday, they will need to park and secure their train and wait for transportation.
freight railway Norfolk South (NSC) plans to deploy management workers to run a limited number of trains in the event of a strike Friday. This would allow critical materials to reach their destination, such as chlorine to water treatment plants.
“We’ll have some capacity. Not a very good capacity, but we’ll have some when it comes down to it,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNN Business on Wednesday. “How we will use them is still being planned.”
Spielmaker said the railways still hope to make a deal with the unions and avoid such a situation. Freight Railways CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific declined to say whether they will use management staff to operate trains in the event of a strike.
The threat of the strike could disrupt commutes across the country. Many Amtrak and local commuter trains run on freight-owned railroads. If striking drivers park their trans-midroute Friday morning, commuting could be disrupted. Amtrak said Wednesday it has canceled all long-distance trains beginning Thursday and that 10 additional routes would be shut down Thursday evening. Amtrak said additional delays or cancellations are possible.
Strike threat puts pressure on White House
The attempt to avert a strike is a major test for President Joe Biden and his White House, which has positioned itself as one of the most pro-labor governments ever. At the same time, it also wants to avoid potential shocks to the economy, especially with the midterm elections in seven weeks.
Railway workers have a different labor law than most workers, a law that limits their freedom to strike and allows more government intervention. In July, Biden issued an order preventing a strike at the time and created a panel known as a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to try to resolve 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 Friday. Only Congress can act to keep workers employed if there is no deal. Senator Richard Durbin, the second-highest member of the Democrats’ Senate leadership, told CNN this week that Congressional action is unlikely, despite business groups calling on Congress to act. The Senate is on recess on Friday and many congressmen are flying to London to attend Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
Don’t fight for pay
The PEB’s recommendations called for workers to immediately receive a 14% pay increase, plus a wage backlog from 2020. It also called for a 24% pay increase over the five-year contract term from 2020 to 2024, and cash bonuses. of $1,000 per year.
But it failed to address the staff shortages and scheduling rules that have become the main sticking point in the dispute. Engineers and conductors’ unions say railroads require their members to be “on call” and ready to report at short notice, as much as seven days a week. The leaders of the two unions say their members would not accept a contract without changes to those labor rules.
There are more than 50,000 other union members on the railways who maintain tracks, operate signals, direct trains and work as mechanics, among other things. But they are not subject to the same labor rules, and those unions have already accepted preliminary deals with the railways based on the PEB’s recommendations.
One such union, the Machinists, announced on Wednesday that its members voted to reject the provisional employment contract. There are approximately 5,000 railway union members who work as locomotive engineers, track mechanics and maintenance personnel.
Their rejection of the proposed contract is not an immediate setback in efforts to avoid the strike. The union said it will not go on strike before the end of the month as it seeks a change in the preliminary agreement that its members will accept. But it’s a sign of the complexity the railroads face in making agreements with a dozen different unions that are also acceptable for ordinary membership.
Two other unions, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and the Transportation 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