Rail strike 2022: Intensification of efforts to avert crippling strike passes overnight

Two railroad unions, representing more than 50,000 engineers and conductors who make up the two-man crews that keep trains running, are threatening the first rail strike in 30 years starting at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday. Union leaders and railroad labor negotiators began meeting with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in his Washington, DC office at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Talks were still ongoing 18 hours later at 3 a.m. ET Thursday, a Labor Department spokesman told CNN.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that “all parties must stay at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement. A shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid just that.”[ads1];

The Ministry of Labor asked both management and working life not to comment on the status of the talks, and neither responded to a request for comment.

Here's how the freight strike could affect you
Almost 30% of the nation’s goods are moved on the nation’s railways. Many important sectors – including oil refining, agriculture, automotive and other manufacturing, plus the import of consumer goods – depend on the railways to operate. While a short strike would have a limited effect, economists say a strike lasting a week or more could have serious economic consequences.

The railways announced last Friday that it had stopped accepting shipments of hazardous materials, including fertiliser, as well as safety-related materials, due to concerns that trains will immediately stop wherever they are once the strike begins. On Wednesday, many people stopped accepting shipments of agricultural products.

Members of Union Pacific (UNP) train crews were advised by the railroad late Tuesday that if they are in the middle of a trip when the strike begins at 12:01 a.m. EST Friday, they should park and secure the train and wait for transportation.
Goods railway Norfolk Southern (NSC) plans to use management staff to run a limited number of trains in the event of a strike on Friday. It can allow critical materials to reach their destinations, such as chlorine for water treatment plants.

“We will have some capacity. Not a very good capacity, but we will have some if it comes to that,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNN Business Wednesday. “How we will use them is still being planned.”

Spielmaker said the railroads still hope to reach an agreement with the unions and avert such a situation. Freight railroads CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific declined to say whether they would use conductors to operate trains in the event of a strike.

The threat of the strike could snarl commuters across the country. Many Amtrak and local commuter trains run on railroads owned by freight companies. If striking engineers park the interstate Friday morning, the commute could be disrupted. Amtrak said Wednesday it was canceling all long-distance trains starting Thursday, and it announced 10 additional routes would be closed Thursday night. Amtrak said further delays or cancellations are possible.

Streak threat has the White House under pressure

The effort to avert a strike is a major 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 midterm elections just seven weeks away.
Railroad workers are governed by a different labor law than most workers, one that limits their freedom to strike and allows for more government intervention. In July, Biden issued an order preventing a strike at the time and creating a panel, known as a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), to try to resolve the dispute. It also introduced a 60-day cooling-off period during which unions could not strike and management could not lock out workers.
But Biden cannot order the railroads to continue operating once the cooling-off period ends Friday. Only Congress can act to keep workers on the job if there is no agreement. Sen. Richard Durbin, the second-highest-ranking member of the Democratic Senate leadership, told CNN this week that congressional action is unlikely, despite business groups calling on Congress to act. The Senate is in recess on Friday, and many members of Congress are flying to London to attend Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.

Don’t fight over salary

The PEB’s recommendations called for workers to receive an immediate 14% pay increase, plus back pay dating back to 2020. It also called for a 24% pay increase over the five-year life of the contract from 2020 to 2024, and cash bonuses of $1,000 in the year.

But it did not address the staffing shortage and planning rules that have become the main point of contention in the dispute. The engineers and conductors unions say the railroads require their members to be “on call” and ready to report to work at short notice as often as seven days a week. The management of the two unions say their members would not accept a contract without changes to these work rules.

There are more than 50,000 other union members at the railroads who maintain tracks, operate signals, dispatch trains and work as mechanics, among other jobs. But they are not subject to the same labor rules, and those unions already accepted tentative agreements with the railroad based on the PEB’s recommendations.

One of those unions, the machinists, announced Wednesday that members voted to reject the preliminary labor agreement. There are about 5,000 members of the union 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 their efforts to avoid the strike. The union said it will not go on strike until the end of the month as it tries to secure a change to the provisional agreement that members will accept. But it is a sign of the complexity the railroads face in entering into agreements with a dozen different unions that are also acceptable to rank-and-file membership.

Two other unions, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and the Transportation Communications Union, which between them have 11,000 members, ratified agreements on Wednesday.

— CNN’s Matt McFarland, Ali Zaslav, Kate Sullivan, Phil Mattingly, Maegan Vazquez and Andrew Millman contributed to this report

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