What's at Stake in Union-Railroad Negotiations

Strike or lockout could begin Friday and cost the economy billions
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 14, 2022 5:02 PM CDT
Here's What at Stake in Union-Railroad Negotiations
A locomotive moves among freight cars at a BNSF rail yard Wednesday in Kansas City, Kan.   (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Federal officials are trying to negotiate a contract settlement between freight railroads and unions, while making contingency plans for getting needed shipments—including drinking water and health care products—to their destinations even if the trains stop. A strike or lockout could begin as soon as 12:01am Friday, when the current cooling-off period for both sides ends, the Washington Post reports. On Wednesday, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has 5,000 members, became the first rail union to authorize a strike when it rejected contract terms recommended by a presidential panel, per the Hill. That strike would start in two weeks. Here's the situation:

  • Negotiations: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh held emergency meetings Wednesday with representatives of the rail carriers and two unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Trainmen, or BLET, and the SMART Transportation Division, or SMART-TD. Ten smaller unions signed on to the deal proposed by the White House panel, but those two, which represent about half of the 100,000 rail workers, have not. President Biden called officials from the unions and companies on Monday, aides said.
  • Issues: The main point of contention remaining concerns time off. The unions say workers are punished and even fired under the carriers' points-based attendance policies for going to the doctor or tending to a family emergency. The policies have driven thousands of workers from their jobs and made recruiting "impossible," union officials said. "Rail employees are provided with significant time off," the railroads' negotiating body says on its website, per ABC News. Engineers and conductors counter that they don't get a single paid or unpaid sick day and can be on call for 14 straight days without a break. "This one thing has our members most enraged," said Dennis Pierce, BLET's president. "We have guys who were punished for taking time off for a heart attack and COVID. It's inhumane."
  • Travel: Commuter lines would be affected where they use freight train tracks or rights of way. Regional transit agencies are setting up ways to communicate with commuters if there's a shutdown and helping them find bus service, per the Post. Amtrak has now canceled service on all long-distance routes as of Thursday. Routes in the Northeast would be the least disrupted.

  • Impact: A shutdown would cost the US economy more than $2 billion per day, the Association of American Railroads says. Shortages of retail goods would increase, jobs would be lost, and some manufacturing would have to be suspended. Supply chain problems would intensify, the National Retail Federation said, with undelivered goods piling up.
  • Alternatives: White House officials said they're looking moving freight other ways, such as by truck or plane, but there's not much of an answer. The American Trucking Associations said more than 460,000 long-haul trucks a day would have to be added, per CNN, and there's not enough equipment or drivers for that.
  • The law: Rail strikes in the past have nearly shut down the economy. The Railway Labor Act of 1926 put restrictions and mechanisms to protect against that. Congress can intervene, and some Republicans want to. Two GOP senators introduced a Senate resolution Monday to prevent a strike and force adoption of the government panel's proposal. Congressional Democrats have stayed out of the matter but said they'll step in if negotiations fail, per the Hill. "Historically, Congress will intervene and the president will put forward legislation that adopts what the latest mediation panel says," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian. "Last-minute deals happen often."
(Read more freight train stories.)

We use cookies. By Clicking "OK" or any content on this site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. Read more in our privacy policy.
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.