Sep 14, 2022 - Economy

Railroad unions meet with Labor Department in effort to avert national strike

freight train

Freight trains travel through Houston on Sept. 14. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Rail carriers and union officials on Wednesday met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in Washington in an attempt to reach an agreement to avoid a looming freight rail strike.

Why it matters: The first national rail strike in 30 years could occur if the parties don't reach an agreement by Friday when a federally-mandated cooling-off period expires.

The details: The majority of the 12 railroad unions have reached tentative deals with rail companies, per CNBC. Two labor unions representing engineers and conductors — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and SMART Transportation Division — remain in disagreement in negotiations.

  • Outstanding issues include points-based attendance policies for conductors and engineers that penalize them for routine doctor visits or family medical emergencies, the Washington Post reports.
  • BLET president and top negotiator Dennis Pierce warned that 10% of the workforce could leave if the issues aren’t resolved before the Friday deadline, per CNBC.
  • A strike could affect about 60,000 workers and idle more than 7,000 trains.

Of note: The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ District 19 — one of the first unions to reach an agreement with the railroads — on Wednesday voted to reject the agreement.

  • In an effort to not disrupt other unions in the ratification process, an extension has been agreed to until Sept. 29 at 12 p.m. ET., IAM District 19 said in a statement.

What they're saying: “Secretary Walsh continues to lead discussions at the Department of Labor between the rail companies and unions. The parties are negotiating in good faith and have committed to staying at the table today,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told Axios on Wednesday.

Zoom out: As negotiations continue, here's how some rail companies are responding ahead of the deadline:

  • Amtrak on Wednesday canceled all long-distance trains starting Thursday in anticipation of a rail strike.
  • BNSF Railway stopped moving refrigerated units into inland facilities on Wednesday, CNBC reports.
  • Norfolk Southern on Sunday began issuing embargoes for certain types of shipments.

The big picture: The crisis serves as a test for the pro-labor Biden administration, as it scrambles to avoid a work stoppage and major disruptions to the economy.

  • President Biden was in conversations with both rail unions and companies earlier this week, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday during a press briefing.

Go deeper: Possibility of railway and port strikes threaten supply chain recovery

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