American freight railways have already stopped accepting shipments of hazardous materials and other safety-sensitive materials due to the looming threat of a strike on Friday.
Union Pacific, a major national railroad whose operations were reportedly disrupted by a strike, said the move is intended to “protect the employees, customers and communities we serve.”
A statement from the railroad trading group said they had to take this step to follow federal rules to “make sure no such cargo is left on an unattended or uninsured train.”
But unions representing train crew members threatening to strike say the new rail freight restrictions are designed to pressure Congress to stop unions from leaving. They said the move was “completely useless” and “nothing more than corporate extortion”.
“The railways are using shippers, consumers and our nation’s supply chain as pawns in an effort to get our unions to give in to their contract demands,” the union statement said. “Our unions will not give in to these appalling tactics and Congress must not give in to what can only be described as corporate terrorism.”
The statements show the growing stakes in the labor dispute that could lead to the first national rail strike in 30 years as soon as this Friday. A strike could stop nearly 30 percent of the nation’s freight transportation, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
It is the last thing the US economy needs as it struggles to overcome several years of supply chain problems. A prolonged strike could mean some empty shelves in stores, temporary closures of factories that don’t have the parts they need to function, and higher prices due to limited availability of various consumer goods.
“While these actions are necessary, they do not mean that work stoppage is certain,” the Union Pacific statement said. “What we want, and continue to promote, is a timely resolution that provides historic wage increases for employees and allows the railways to restore service as soon as possible, preventing further disruption to the troubled supply chain.”
Labor law for railway and airline employees is different from the law that controls employment relationships for the vast majority of private sector workers. The Railway Labor Act, the nation’s oldest labor law, allows Congress to take action to keep workers at work in the event of a management strike or lockdown.
But it is unclear whether Congress could act quickly to find a bipartisan measure needed to get the votes to avoid a strike, especially just weeks before the crucial mid-term elections.
In July, when a strike was first threatened, President Joe Biden used the powers he had at the time to stop a freight rail strike. This created a 60-day cooling-off period during which a panel he appointed, known as the Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, reviewed the dispute and made a series of recommendations.
But that 60-day cooling-off period ends at 12:01 am ET on Friday, allowing the union to strike or the railways to block union members. Biden does not have the power to prevent a strike or blockade once again. Without a labor agreement or congressional action to enforce a contract or extend the cooling-off period, the national freight railways will come to a halt on Friday.
“The railways show no intention of reaching an agreement with our unions, but they cannot legally block our members until the end of the cooling-off period,” the union said in a statement. “Instead, they are blocking their customers starting Monday and further damage the supply chain in an attempt to provoke congressional action.”
The PEB’s proposals included an immediate 14% increase for 115,000 union members working for the railways, including reimbursement through 2020, and increases totaling 24% over the five-year contract term from 2020 to 2024. plan was good enough for eight of the 12 unions, which together represent some 45,000 railroad employees, accept a temporary employment contract. The most recent deals came over the weekend.
But four of the groups, including the two most significant unions representing the engineers and conductors who make up the crews of two on each train, have so far refused to accept the PEB’s proposal.
Two of the unions – those representing train staff members – say their members would never ratify a contract that includes current staffing levels and scheduling rules. They say the shortage of workers has meant that their members must be available to show up for work on short notice seven days a week, even on days they are not scheduled to work. These rules do not apply to union members who have reached interim agreements.
The unions of engineers and conductors comprise about half of the union members who work for the railways. And if they go on strike, even if all the other unions agree to stay at work, the trains won’t work.
The railroad management says that the PEB took into consideration the union’s demands on planning and was “expressly rejected”.
“It is imperative that the remaining unions promptly reach agreements that provide wage increases to employees and prevent disruption of rail service,” the management statement said. He said that agreements with the remaining unions should be “based on the PEB’s recommendation”.
But the unions of engineers and conductors they are urging their allies in Congress not to take any action to impose a labor agreement on workers who have yet to reach an agreement, or to extend the cooling-off period. The unions say that only a strike can solve the problem and, if the management wants to avoid a strike, it must agree to fix the rules of the work.
“Rather than blocking the supply chain by denying shipments…. the railways should work for a fair deal that our members, their employees, would ratify, ”the trade unions said. “For this to happen, we need to make improvements to the working conditions that have been on the negotiating table since the beginning of the negotiations.”
U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, who met the two sides during mediation talks last week, re-engaged the two sides on Sunday to push them to reach a resolution that avoids any closure, according to a statement by a spokesman for the Department of Labor. He also canceled a trip to Ireland to give a speech there due to the railway job interviews.
“All parties must remain at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement,” the statement read. “The fact that we are already seeing some impacts of railroad contingency planning demonstrates once again that shutting down our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid it “.
– CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.