OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Freight railroads and their unions are facing mounting pressure from business groups and the White House to settle their contract dispute before Friday’s looming strike deadline.
The push comes from concerns that cutting off the rail deliveries of raw materials and finished goods that so many companies rely on would be, in the words of the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, an “economic disaster.”
A White House official said President Joe Biden and members of his cabinet were in contact with unions and the railroads on Monday as part of their efforts to avert a strike. And for the second time in the past week, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh sat down at the negotiating table Sunday to urge the parties to reach an agreement. Walsh postponed a planned trip to Ireland this week to stay close to the talks.
A Labor Department spokesman said Monday that it is vital that the parties remain at the negotiating table and reach an agreement because “the shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people.”
Susan Clark, head of the US Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that “a national rail strike would be an economic disaster – freezing the flow of goods, emptying shelves, closing workplaces and raising prices for families and businesses.”
The chamber joined a number of other business groups, including a coalition of 31 agricultural shipping trade groups, in sending letters to Congress urging lawmakers to be ready to step in and block a strike if the two sides fail to reach an agreement by the end of week. The chamber said that, if that’s the case, Congress should impose the terms proposed by a Presidential Emergency Council appointed by Biden this summer.
The trade group Association of American Railroads released a report last week estimating that rail shutdowns would cost the economy $2 billion a day.
The coalition that negotiates on behalf of the nation’s largest freight railroads — including Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Kansas City Southern — announced eight of 13 tentative agreements needed to avert a strike by about 115,000 railroad workers.
The deals announced so far closely followed the President’s Emergency Council recommendations that called for 24 percent raises over five years, $5,000 in bonuses and one extra day of paid leave a year. But the two largest unions representing conductors and engineers are holding out because they want the railroads to go beyond those recommendations and address some of their concerns about strict attendance policies and working conditions.
Railroads have said they will begin curtailing shipments of hazardous materials and some other freight on Monday ahead of a possible work stoppage later in the week. This would ensure that containers of these dangerous goods do not remain stranded on the lines.
Leaders of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation — Department of Transportation union that represents pipelines and the Brotherhood of Mechanical Engineers and Educators union that represents engineers criticized the decision as a move to increase pressure on shippers and Congress to intervene.
Federal law governing railroad contract talks will not allow a strike or lockout before Friday.
Associated Press reporter Josh Boak contributed to this report from Washington, DC