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Railroad unions to strike if rail companies can’t agree by Friday

Experts say a strike involving tens of thousands of workers could cost the economy $2 billion a day if a compromise isn’t reached

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A BNSF rail terminal worker monitors the departure of a freight train on June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Ill.

A BNSF rail terminal worker monitors the departure of a freight train on June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Ill. The major freight railroads say in a new report Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, designed to put pressure on unions and Congress, that a strike would cost the economy more than $2 billion a day and disrupt deliveries of all kinds of goods and passenger traffic nationwide if it happens after a key deadline passes next week without a contract agreement.

Shafkat Anowar, Associated Press

A deadlock between rail industry unions and freight companies may cause billions of dollars in economic damage if all parties cannot reach an agreement soon, as tens of thousands of rail workers have the walking power to stop passenger and cargo transport.

A federally mandated 30-day “cooling off” period is set to end Friday, allowing workers to initiate strikes and lockouts. CNBC reports that with roughly 40% of the United States’ long-distance trade moved by rail, a worker’s strike would idle over 7,000 trains and would cost the economy up to $2 billion per day.

The looming threat of a strike for better pay and work conditions has the Biden administration rushing to resolve ongoing negotiations. President Joe Biden has appointed a Presidential Emergency Board to facilitate an agreement between unions and railroad carriers and prevent a strike by the rail workers.

The Presidential Emergency Board offered a compromise of a 24% wage increase by 2024 — the largest pay hike in decades, NPR reports. But pay isn’t the primary reason for a potential strike, says Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. The union president claims that attendance policies and scheduling are a larger point of contention for railroad workers.

“It’s no longer about money — it’s about unpaid time off to go to the doctor without getting fired,” Pierce told The New York Times.

Railroad workers are expected to be on-call for days at a time, sometimes working 12-hour shifts and, as Pierce mentioned, are penalized for calling in sick. CNBC reported that Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway attempted to address its attendance issues after 700 union workers had quit the company, implementing a point-based system and later modifying it in May. That same system would not allow workers to take a day off for a funeral, however.

Railroad and union officials have been summoned to meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at the Labor Department in Washington, D.C., as the 30-day deadline looms just days away. CNN reports that over 60,000 union members plan to go on strike on Friday, should rail carriers and unions not come to an agreement.

While Walsh continues to push both sides to reach an agreement, two labor unions, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division, have withheld their vote. The New York Times reports the unions are waiting until working conditions can be improved, noting reduced staffing over recent years has led to many issues the rail industry now faces.

Martin Oberman, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, said in a statement that attempts by rail carriers to satisfy shareholders had led to a 29% reduction in the workforce.

“In my view, all of this has directly contributed to where we are today — rail users experiencing serious deteriorations in rail service because on too many parts of their networks the railroads simply do not have a sufficient number of employees,” Oberman said.