Freight train strike threatens supply chains, prompting White House to plan

A national rail strike could derail critical deliveries of chlorine to wastewater treatment plants and coal to utilities, among other potentially crippling disruptions, prompting senior White House officials on Tuesday to review contingency options to protect the nation’s drinking water and energy supplies.

White House aides are looking at how to ensure that essential products transported by rail ̵[ads1]1; such as food, energy and essential health products – can still reach their final destination even in the event of a potential strike. Senior officials have been looking at how highways, ports and waterways could be used to compensate for any damage, while also talking to top officials in shipping, freight and logistics.

President Biden was personally briefed on the issue Tuesday morning, after he called the carriers and unions Monday to press them to accept a deal, a White House official said. Senior White House officials now lead daily meetings with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and other top agencies on how to reduce the impact. In particular, Biden aides are working to ensure that hazardous materials shipped by rail are transported safely without harming workers. The White House is also studying potential authorities to mitigate any damage, but has made no announcement. The White House’s planning was described by several people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal planning.

It concerns a contract agreement between railway companies and two unions, which represent 57,000 conductors and engineers over attendance policies. A federally mandated “cooling off” period ends Friday, opening the possibility of a strike, if employees refuse to go to work, or a lockout, if carriers refuse to let workers do their jobs.

Some freight carriers have begun curtailing services, suspending shipments of hazardous materials and parking trains in what appears to be preparations for a lockout. Amtrak, which carries passengers on freight lines, canceled some long-distance routes Monday.

Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute, after two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions representing railroad workers. Nine unions have entered into preliminary agreements with the carriers based on the board’s recommendations, leaving the two largest unions without an agreement in place. A smaller union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, reached a tentative agreement with the carriers Monday night and has returned to the bargaining table.

Amtrak cancels some long-distance trips as freight strike looms

Contract negotiations on Zoom between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the SMART Transportation Division and the rail carriers were conducted late in the day Monday without the parties reaching an agreement, labor officials from both unions said.

The main issues holding up a deal are some of the major operators’ point-based attendance policies that penalize workers, up to termination, for going to routine doctor appointments or participating in family emergencies. Conductors and engineers say they do not get a single sick day, paid or unpaid.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents the railroads in negotiations, has denied that workers are denied sick time, and it has said its ability to set attendance policies is necessary to ensure enough train operators are available to work amid labor shortages.

“You may have heard from the workforce that they don’t get any sick days or paid time off. This is untrue, said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, noting that some workers supplement sick leave and can take time off for any reason, as long as they maintain a reasonable level of general availability according to the operator’s policies for attendance. .

While the unions said they watered down some of their proposals and abandoned requests for paid sick days, they are adamant that members should be allowed to attend routine medical appointments without jeopardizing their employment. They said they are willing to accept a contract that addresses those concerns and are ready to strike if carriers don’t budge on it. As of Tuesday morning, the carriers had not made any counter-proposals to this offer, the two unions said.

As US rail strikes loom, White House aides are scrambling to avert crisis

Two of the largest railroads operating primarily in the western United States – BNSF and Union Pacific – are the companies with points-based attendance policies. More than 700 BNSF employees have quit since rolling out a points-based policy in February. Employees can be terminated if they run out of points, even in the event of a family emergency. Missing work on certain high-impact days, or scheduling a single doctor’s appointment, can cause workers to lose half or more of their awarded points.

“They have refused to accept our proposals,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the two unions in negotiations. “The average American wouldn’t know that we get fired for going to the doctor. This one thing infuriates our members the most. We have guys who were punished for taking time off for heart attacks and covid. It’s inhumane.”

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