Massive rail strike next week could deal another blow to US economy

said John Drake, Vice President of Transportation, Infrastructure and Supply Chain Policy, US Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce is urging both sides to reach an agreement to avoid the first nationwide rail strike in 30 years.

Unions and the National Railroad Labor Conference, which represents management at the negotiating table, met on Wednesday with federal mediators and U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh to see if a deal could be reached. He said there was no progress.

Freight rail has generally thrived during the pandemic, so the key controversy is not about wages, but the rules governing worker scheduling. Many of the drivers and conductors who make up his two crews on each train must be “on call” to work seven days a week, unable to make plans for themselves and spend time with family. It’s taking away, taking away the time to work. High turnover rate.

out of time

Rail workers are under different labor laws than those governing industrial relations at most companies, so Congress may be able to act to prevent or quickly stop strikes. But that would require a level of bipartisanship rarely seen in Washington, with the midterm elections just weeks away.
President Joe Biden has imposed a cooling-off period during which a committee he appointed, known as the Presidential Emergency Committee (PEB), will consider issues at stake in negotiations and announce recommended settlements. It prevented a strike two months ago.

This 60-day cooling-off period is scheduled to expire at 12:01 a.m. ET on September 16, at which point Biden will be powerless to stop the strike. Only Congress can act to prevent work from stopping, either by imposing an agreement on both sides or by extending the current cooling-off period.

PEB recommended multiple annual salary increases, dating back to July 2020, when his previous contract was set to expire.

They will not only give workers an immediate 14% raise, but also an additional backpay for hours worked from 2020 onwards. It will run from 2020 to 2024 and will also offer an annual cash bonus of $1,000.

PEB’s recommended wage is somewhat less than the union requested and somewhat more than management had previously offered.

However, five small unions representing more than 21,000 railroad workers have been fortunate enough to have agreed to a temporary labor agreement based on the commission’s recommendations. effect. Also, PEB’s wage recommendations would probably have been well received, even if other unions were demanding more.

“We are not going to sit here and argue [wages] Or healthcare. We’re beyond that,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the union representing the conductor, one of two workers on the freight train along with the engineer.

Anger at work rules

The conductors union and six other unions are on strike. Those representing engineers were unsatisfied with the recommendations of the Labor Regulations and how “on-call” requirements affected members’ quality of life, denying them free time with their families even when away from work. doing.

Unions have called on allies in Congress to stay out of action, arguing that a strike is the only way to reach an agreement. Labor regulations are intolerable, they say, forcing employees out of business, causing labor shortages and well-documented service problems in freight forwarding. rail service.

“In fact they [the railroads] We expect Congress to act,” said Dennis Pearce, president of the Brotherhood of Engineers and Railroadmen. [the union’s allies in Congress] I know they are necessary to avoid it. ”

“This is a chance to stand up for the working class and labor that the Democrats claim they stand for,” Ferguson said.

Will Congress Act?

If Congress takes action, it will be a difficult political choice for the Biden administration. Biden has supported labor unions more than any president in history, but he doesn’t want supply chains, prices or the economy to suffer in the run-up to the crucial midterm elections.

Asked about the risk of a strike, White House officials did not mention possible congressional action, instead stressing that a negotiated solution was needed to avoid the shutdown they wanted to avoid.

“After the pandemic and supply chain disruptions of the past two years, now is not the time for more uncertainty and disruption,” an official told CNN’s Betsy Klein.

The White House is “ready to help both parties work toward an agreement or voluntarily extend the cooling-off period,” the official said.

“We take no position on what the elements of the deal should be,” the official added. “We are confident that both parties will make every effort to negotiate in good faith towards a mutually acceptable solution and urge both sides to do so promptly,” it said.

Democrats in Congress could impose a contract more in line with union preferences than what was recommended by the presidential committee. Republicans could benefit if a prolonged railroad strike causes economic problems just before the election, especially if it’s blamed on Democrats.

Biden Avoids Freight Rail Strike - For Now

Even some businesses, hoping the dispute will be resolved without a strike, are nervous about turning to Congress.

“Frankly, it’s not a good sign that it’s finally going to come to Congress,” said one business person who has been closely monitoring possible strikes, provided his name is not used. .

“You never know what you’re going to get. There could be lawmakers who can support a bill that demands something… When Congress gets involved, it messes things up.”

The executive believes Congress will extend the cooling-off period, perhaps beyond Election Day, to get the can on track rather than force a deal. But it’s still not a solution.

“Here’s the rub, it’s been 30 days since then [presidential panel’s] Recommendation. Of the 12 railroad unions, only five have signed the recommendation,” he said.

At this point, rather than asking Congress to act, the railroad is asking labor unions to agree to terms recommended by a presidential commission.

“It is in the best interest of all stakeholders and the public that railways and railway workers’ organizations quickly reach an agreement to provide wage increases to their employees and prevent disruptions to railway services. Recommendations of the PEB as the basis for a comprehensive agreement.”

A railroad trade group released an estimate Thursday that the suspension of freight rail services would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day. It did not specifically call for Congressional action and urged both parties to resolve their disputes through negotiations, but said in a statement, “Ultimately, Congress has the power to intervene and avoid a shutdown.” ” he said.

record railway profits

The threat of strikes comes as several railroads including: Union Pacific (UNP), Norfolk Southern (Nippon Steel) When Berkshire Hathaway’s (burqa) Burlington Northern Santa Fe reports record earnings.

Unions say the company is profiting behind its employees and creating conditions for them to quit. Employment has fallen by over 30,000, or about 20% of the workforce.

Union leaders say union members are now at a breaking point and are eager to strike to win change.

“This is not a personal choice for the union president,” said Engineers Guild president Pierce. “Our Member States have made it clear that this is not an agreement they ratify.”

— CNN’s Betsy Cline contributed to this report

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