A possible nationwide freight train strike looms, threatening to derail the US economy ahead of the holiday shopping season and midterm elections in November. About 115,000 railway workers could leave their jobs as soon as September 16 if they cannot agree to a new contract with the railways.
This is the first day workers can legally strike after a White House-appointed committee issued collective bargaining recommendations aimed at ending years of contentious negotiations.
Five of the 12 unions representing rail workers have reached tentative agreements with the railroad to enact Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) recommendations, which call for a 24 percent wage increase, back wages and cash bonuses.
But the bulk of the railway workers belong to unions that have not yet agreed to a deal. It’s also unclear whether workers will vote to ratify PEB’s recommendations that don’t address their concerns about penalizing work hours and strict schedules that make it difficult to take time off for any reason.
said Ron Kamenko, an organizer with Railroad Workers United, which represents the rank and file of the railroad.
More than 9 out of 10 railway workers will vote to reject PEB’s recommendations and go on strike, according to a recent survey by the organization.
However, Kamenko noted that workers could change their minds when faced with the prospect of years of back wages and the fact that Congress could take away their main source of influence at any time.
Federal law gives Congress the power to prevent or delay a rail strike. If workers pull out, lawmakers can vote to enact a PEB deal or appoint arbitrators to expedite a new contract, among a host of other options.
The American Railroad Association, which estimates that shutting down the national railroad will cost the United States at least $2 billion a day, said lawmakers should vote to implement PEB recommendations in the event of a strike “to reward employees immediately and reduce economic uncertainty.”
Experts say the extended strike would destroy industries that depend on shipping to transport grain, coal, diesel, steel and auto parts. Shipping containers will pile up at ports, congesting supply chains, driving up prices ahead of the holidays.
“Railroads are actually critical to the country’s economy, as well as to security. There are a lot of dangerous things that can’t go over land,” said Nicholas Little, director of rail education at Michigan State University’s Center for Rail Research and Education.
While the Democrats are closely allied with the labor unions, organizers concede that they will likely not allow a long strike before the midterm elections. President Biden, who created the PEB in July to help resolve a contract dispute, is laser focused on untangling supply chains.
“Following the pandemic and supply chain disruptions of the past two years, now is not the time for more uncertainty and disruption,” a White House official told The Hill. “Now is the time for the parties to resolve their differences, before the country’s economy begins to respond even to the possibility of a nationwide rail disruption.”
While both unions and the railroad say they want to avoid the strike, some see downtime as the only way to win better working conditions.
Over the past six years, the major shipping companies have laid off 45,000 employees, or roughly 30 percent of their combined workforce, according to the Surface Transportation Council. This has left trains understaffed when demand increases, leading to service disruptions and overwork for crew members.
Workers complain that they often cannot secure time off, even at scheduled doctor appointments or family events, and are disciplined when they miss a day for whatever reason. They say they don’t get enough notice or rest before starting a day-long shift that can take hundreds of miles from home.
“Emotionally, I just got drained,” said Robert Holyfield, an electronics technician, at a railroad worker town hall hosted by the AFL-CIO’s Department of Transportation Trade last month. “Every time the phone rings, you go into a little panic and wonder where you’re going and how long you’ll be away from your family.”
Many workers saw this round of negotiations as a key opportunity to renew those policies and were disappointed when the recommendations of the public board of directors largely ignored them. There is a growing sense of resignation even if they wanted to attack, Congress wouldn’t let them.
The last time Congress moved to end a rail strike was 30 years ago. Most lawmakers today and their senior aides have never dealt with this issue before and have little knowledge of the process, potentially giving industry insiders even greater influence.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers and the International Federation of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers said in a May Day statement that railroads are “hiding behind Congress” as they seek to reject workers’ demands.
“Although there are no guarantees for either side about what Congress might do if it were involved, there is no doubt that railroad companies would expect Congress to step in to save them from dealing fairly with their employees if there was functional action,” he said.