Deadline to block freight rail strike looms before Biden

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The deadline is approaching for President Joe Biden to step in and stop 115,000 railroad workers from going on strike and disrupting deliveries of cars, crops, containers of imported goods and countless other products and raw materials.

Biden is widely expected to name a referee board to review the contract dispute and make recommendations on how to resolve it before Monday’s deadline. Once it does, any strike or lockout will be delayed 60 days under the federal law that governs rail contract talks.

A White House official said the Biden administration is going through the standard process to decide whether to appoint this special board to intervene in contract negotiations.

Railroad-dependent businesses have urged Biden to appoint that Emergency Presidential Board to try to bring workers and freight railroads together to come to an agreement. Groups including the US Chamber of Commerce and major rail carrier trade groups have written to Biden over the past month since the talks. stagnant and mediation officially ended to say a rail strike could cause catastrophic disruption to the economy.

“Any strike is bad,” said Rob Benedict of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers group that represents refiners and other chemical companies. “We want to avoid that at all costs, especially when we are in a precarious situation like the one our nation is experiencing now. of our current supply chain crisis.”

Adding to supply chain concerns is a separate labor dispute involving 22,000 West Coast dockworkers at ports that handle about 40% of US imports. Both sides in those negotiations have said they plan to keep cargo moving until a new deal is reached even though their contract expired in early July. Ports rely on railroads to deliver many of the goods they handle.

The presidential board can only make non-binding recommendations on rail contracts, but they will serve as the basis for a new round of negotiations that could lead to a contract that has eluded the railroads since talks began more than two years ago.

Even if those efforts fail, Congress would likely step in to prevent a strike. Lawmakers could impose terms on the railroads and their 12 unions at that time or take other steps to keep trains moving.

The National Conference of Carriers Committee representing Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and other railroads said it believes the wage increases being offered by the railroads are fair based on other major recent labor agreements, but Unions say none of the offers so far do enough to offset inflation or reflect current worker shortages. In addition, the railroads want workers to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs, which the unions say would eat up most, if not all, of the proposed increases.

NCCC President Brendan Branon said the railroads are disappointed an agreement has not yet been reached, but hope the presidential board will help.

“It remains in the best interest of all parties, and the public, that the railroads and railroad labor organizations resolve this round of bargaining by entering into mutually acceptable agreements that provide quick pay raises to the nation’s hard-working railroad workers and prevent rail service interruptions. Branon said in a statement.

Unions say a better contract would likely help ease railways’ difficulties in hiring more workers to reduce delivery delays and improve service in response to complaints from carriers and regulators. The railways have been having significant problems keeping up with demand this year as the economy improves, forcing some companies to cut production while they wait for trains, and they say hiring hundreds more workers is key to improving service.

Many of the companies that ship freight by rail, labor groups and regulators blame the railroads’ current shipping problems on those deep cuts in workers, while the railroads say the shortage of workers across the country and the difficult contracting environment has prevented them from hiring enough workers to handle all shipments as the economy recovers.

In contract negotiations, the unions are also adamantly opposed to railway proposals to cut train crews from two to one.

Union officials say no. I want to hit but they seem ready to act if it comes to that. The Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers said this week that more than 99% of its members voted to authorize the union to strike if a deal cannot be reached.

“In the end, the question of whether or not any of the union-represented rail industry employees want to strike legally is secondary to what they really want,” said BLET President Dennis Pierce. “They want a contract with significant salary increases and good benefits. They want jobs that give them a chance to have a life outside of work. To be clear, there would be no need for a strike vote if any of that had happened in these negotiations.”

The workers who kept the railroads running during the pandemic are frustrated they haven’t had a raise since 2019 and are fed up with working conditions and hours they have to endure after major freight railroads cut nearly a third of their jobs in the past six years as they overhauled their operations.

“With an outdated contract that has been in place since before inflation took hold, workers have nothing to show for their blood, sweat and tears, as well as the sacrifices they and their families have made,” said Jeremy Ferguson. , president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Railroad and Transportation Workers union — Transportation Division representing drivers.

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