Freight double-stack train in USA, source: Wikipedia

President Biden seeks to ward off national strike by US railway workers

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

US President Joe Biden is seeking to ward off a national strike by railway workers, which could begin later this week and potentially wreak havoc on the country’s supply chains.

A labour dispute between railway carriers and two unions, SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), representing almost 60,000 conductors and engineers, who make up the two-person crews on each train, focuses on attendance policies which the unions claim penalize workers for going to routine doctor visits or dealing with family emergencies.

A federally mandated ‘cooling-off’ period ends on September 16, opening the door to a possible strike or a lockout by the carriers.

Negotiations between the carriers and the unions are continuing, and earlier this week, President Biden urged the two parties to reach a deal.

Contingency options

Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the White House was considering contingency options to ensure essential products carried by rail – such as food, energy and key health products – could still reach their destinations should a strike take place.

The newspaper said senior officials have looked at how highways, ports and waterways can be used to offset any damage caused while also talking to top officials in the shipping, freight and logistics industries.

Embargo on hazmat shipments

The US’ major freight railroads have already taken pre-emptive action in light of the strike threat.

In a statement, Union Pacific said: “Considering the looming possibility of a national rail labour strike, we are prepared to take the proactive steps to secure our customers’ goods. At this time, we have only embargoed rail security-sensitive material (RSSM) shipments to make sure these hazardous commodities are safely secured in the event of a work stoppage.

“While these actions are necessary, they do not mean a work stoppage is certain. What we want, and continue to push for, is a prompt resolution that provides historic wage increases to employees and allows the railroads to restore service as soon as possible, preventing further disruption to the struggling supply chain.”

‘Unnecessary attack on rail shippers’

Commenting on the embargo on certain types of new shipments, the two labour unions said in a joint statement: “This completely unnecessary attack on rail shippers by these highly profitable Class I railroads is no more than corporate extortion.”

They added that the move was “further harming the supply chain in an effort to provoke congressional action.”

$2 billion per day loss to economy

Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) warned that a strike would be extremely damaging to the US economy.

It underlined that AAR members are operating over a nearly 140,000-mile network in 49 states.

“Freight railroads are indispensable to our economy. That’s why a freight rail shutdown idling more than 7,000 long-distance Class I trains per day, in addition to the short line, passenger and commuter trains, would be devastating. Today, tens of thousands of rail customer locations – from sprawling auto plants to mom-and-pop retailers – depend on railroads to deliver raw materials and finished products.

The AAR added: “If these and other rail shipments were halted, the loss in economic output would likely be at least $2 billion per day.

Author: Stuart Todd

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