Talks aimed at averting a freight rail strike that could cripple US supply chains continued overnight through Thursday. If the strike goes on early Friday, it could drive up prices for 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 starting at 12:01 am ET on Friday. Union leaders and railroad labor negotiators began meeting with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in his Washington, DC office at 9:00 am ET on Wednesday.
The talks were still ongoing 18 hours later, at 3 a.m. ET on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor told CNN.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One that “all parties must remain at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement. A closure. of our rail freight system is an unacceptable result for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid it. ”
The Department of Labor asked both management and labor not to comment on the status of the interviews, and neither responded to a request for comment.
Nearly 30% of the nation’s freight travels on national railways. Many vital sectors, including oil refining, agriculture, auto and other manufacturing sectors, as well as consumer goods imports, depend on railways to function. While a short strike would have limited effect, economists say a strike lasting a week or more could have severe economic consequences.
Railways announced last Friday that they have stopped accepting shipments of hazardous materials, including fertilizers, as well as safety-related materials, due to concerns that trains will stop immediately wherever they are once the strike has begun. On Wednesday, many stopped accepting shipments of agricultural products.
Union Pacific (UNP) train staff members were informed by the railroad Tuesday at the end of Tuesday that if they were in the middle of a trip when the strike starts at 12:01 am EST on Friday they should park and secure theirs. train and wait for the transport.
The 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 skills. It’s not a very good capability, but we’ll have some if it comes to that, “Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNN Business Wednesday.” How we’ll use them is still in the planning stage. ”
Spielmaker said the railways still hope to reach an agreement with the unions and avoid such a situation. Freight Railways CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific have declined to say whether they will use management employees to operate the trains in the event of a strike.
The strike threat could hinder commuters across the country. Many Amtrak and local commuter trains travel on railways owned by freight companies. If the striking engineers park their intermediate route on Friday morning, commuters could be disrupted. Amtrak on Wednesday said it had canceled all long-distance trains as of Thursday and announced that 10 additional routes would be closed on Thursday evening. Amtrak said further delays or cancellations are possible.
The effort to avert a strike is an important test for President Joe Biden and his White House, which has positioned itself as one of the most pro-labor administrations ever. At the same time, it also wants to avoid potential shocks to the economy, especially with the mid-term elections just seven weeks away.
Railway workers are governed by a different labor law than most workers, which limits their freedom to strike and allows for more government intervention. In July Biden issued an ordinance preventing a strike at that time and created a panel, known as the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), to try to find a solution to the dispute. He also imposed a 60-day cooling-off period during which unions could not strike and management could not block workers.
But Biden cannot order the railways to continue operating once the cooling-off period ends on Friday. Only Congress can act to keep workers at work if there are no agreements. Senator Richard Durbin, the second-highest-ranking member of the Democratic Senate leadership, told CNN this week that Congressional action is unlikely, despite business groups asking Congress to act. The Senate is on hiatus on Friday and many members of Congress are flying to London to attend Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
The PEB recommendations called for workers to obtain an immediate pay rise of 14%, more backward going back to 2020. It also required a 24% pay increase during the five-year life of the contract from 2020 to 2024 and cash bonuses. of $ 1,000 per year.
But it did not address the staff shortage and scheduling rules that have become the key point of the controversy. Unions of engineers and conductors say railways require their members to be “on call” and ready to show up for work on short notice even seven days a week. The leadership of the two unions says their members would not accept a contract without changes to those labor rules.
There are more than 50,000 other union members at the railways who maintain tracks, manage signals, dispatch trains, and work as mechanics, among other jobs. But they are not subject to the same labor rules and those unions have already accepted interim agreements with the railways based on the recommendations of the PEB.
One of those unions, the Machinists, announced Wednesday that its members voted to reject its attempted labor agreement. There are approximately 5,000 union members at the railways who work as locomotive drivers, track equipment mechanics and facility 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 tries to reach a change in the interim agreement that its members will accept. But it is a sign of the complexity the railways are facing in reaching agreements with a dozen different unions that are also acceptable for grassroots membership.
Two other unions, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and the Transportation Communications Union, which has 11,000 members among them, ratified the agreements on Wednesday.
– CNN’s Matt McFarland, Ali Zaslav, Kate Sullivan, Phil Mattingly, Maegan Vazquez and Andrew Millman contributed to this report