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White House Striving to Avert Crisis as Potential Rail Strike Grows Nearer

September 14, 2022 by Dan McCue
(Association of American Railroads photo)

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden continued to press union leaders and rail companies to make a deal and avert a national railroad strike as of 12:01 a.m. on Friday, the White House is working on contingencies to reduce the impact of a work stoppage.

Earlier today, nearly 5,000 railway workers at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted to reject a tentative contract agreement with railroads and authorize a strike, the union said Wednesday.

In short, that meant the talks have taken a new, more ominous turn.

During her daily briefing with reporters on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the unions and the rail companies are still at the table, and stressed, “this is incredibly important.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“They’re negotiating in good faith, as the president and cabinet secretaries have pushed for these past several months,” she said.

Jean-Pierre went on to say the White House has “made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families, businesses and farmers, and communities could experience if they were not to reach a resolution.”

The press secretary went on to say that in terms of a contingency plan, the administration has been working with companies in other modes of transportation, “including shippers, truckers, air freight … to see how they can step in and keep goods moving in case of a rail shutdown.

“The administration has also been working with relevant agencies to assess what supply chains and commodities are most likely to face severe disruptions and available authorities to keep goods moving,” Jean-Pierre said. “So, again, we’re really working with and trying to figure out with other modes of transportation how to move forward.”

Biden reportedly last spoke to union leaders and company officials on Monday, his continued engagement coming on the heels of unsuccessful emergency meetings last week led by Labor and Transportation Secretaries Marty Walsh and Pete Buttigieg and the White House National Economic Council.

If there is a strike, it would be the first such work stoppage in nearly 30 years. The current impasse is the result of disagreement over a number of thorny issues, including raises, back pay, demands for more predictable scheduling and the ability to take time off for doctors’ appointments without being penalized.

Amtrak responded to the Machinists’ news on Wednesday by canceling all long-distance passenger trains, effective Thursday.

Amtrak noted that outside the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York and Washington, most of its service runs on “track owned, maintained, and dispatched by freight railroads.”

As a result, it said, only trains that can reach their final destination by the Friday deadline would continue to operate.

It also said most travel in the Northeast Corridor would not be affected, since it controls those rails itself.

According to the Association of American Railroads, a rail shutdown would idle more than 7,000 long-distance Class I trains per day and “halt most passenger and commuter rail services.”

If that were to happen, the estimated loss in economic output would be about $2 billion per day, the association said.

Despite the potentially dire situation coming to a head later this week, there has been some progress in negotiations.

This past Sunday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters, struck a tentative agreement with national rail carriers, leaving only two of the 12 unions without a deal in place. 

Those two groups, representing engineers and conductors, are the two largest rail unions in the country. 

The remaining 10 unions are expected to refuse to work in solidarity.

On Monday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in, asking Congress to take immediate action and implement the recommendations of Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board if the railroads and unions are unable to come to a voluntary agreement.

In July Biden signed an executive order establishing an independent and neutral Presidential Emergency Board to help resolve an ongoing dispute among major freight rail carriers and their unions.

The Presidential Emergency Board would provide a structure for workers and management to resolve their disagreements, investigate the dispute and, within 30 days of its establishment, deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved.

“A national rail strike would be an economic disaster — freezing the flow of goods, emptying shelves, shuttering workplaces, and raising prices for families and businesses alike,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne Clark in a written statement.

“To avoid a strike and the catastrophic economic impacts that would follow, one of three things needs to happen: the remaining unions who have not agreed to a deal need to join the ones who have; an agreement to extend the current ‘cooling off’ period must be reached; or Congress intervenes, as it has in prior situations,” she said. “If action is not taken, the nation’s rail service will come to a halt, the negative impacts of which cannot be understated.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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