America is already feeling the consequences of an impending national rail strike

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CNN Business

US freight railroads have already stopped accepting shipments of hazardous materials and other safety-sensitive materials due to the looming threat of a strike Friday.

A statement from the railroad’s trade group said they had to take this action in order to follow federal rules to “ensure that no such cargo is left on an unattended or unsecured train.”

But unions representing train crew members who are threatening to go on strike say the railroad’s new freight restrictions are designed to pressure Congress to stop the unions from withdrawing. They said the move was “completely unnecessary” and “no more than corporate extortion”.

“The railroads are using our nation’s shippers, consumers and supply chain as pawns in an effort to get our unions to cave in to their contractual demands,” the unions’ statement read. “Our unions will not cave to these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave to what can only be described as corporate terrorism.”

The statements show the rising stakes of the labor dispute that could lead to the first national railway strike in 30 years from this Friday. A strike could shut down nearly 30% of national freight, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

It’s about the last thing The US economy needs as he struggles to overcome several years of supply chain issues. A prolonged strike could mean empty shelves in stores, temporary shutdowns in factories that don’t have the parts they need to operate, and higher prices due to the limited availability of various consumer goods.

“While these actions are necessary, they do not mean that a work stoppage is certain,” the Union Pacific statement said. “What we want, and continue to push, is a quick resolution that delivers historic wage increases to employees and allows the railways to restore service as soon as possible, preventing further supply chain disruptions. in trouble.”

Labor law for railway and airline employees is different from the law that governs labor relations for the vast majority of workers in the private sector. The Railway Labor Act, the nation’s oldest labor law, allows Congress to take action to keep workers on the job in the event of a strike or lockout of workers by management.

But it’s unclear whether Congress can move quickly to find the necessary bipartisan measure to win the votes to avert a strike, especially weeks before crucial midterm elections.

In July, when a strike was first threatened, President Joe Biden used the powers he had at the time to block a freight train strike. This created a 60-day cooling-off period during which a panel he appointed, known as the Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, considered the dispute and made a series of recommendations.

But that 60-day cooling-off period ends at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday, allowing the union to go on strike or the railroads to lock out union members. Biden does not have the power to prevent a strike or lockout again. Without a labor agreement or congressional action to enforce a contract or extend the cooling-off period, the national freight railroads will be ground to a halt Friday.

“The railways show no intention of reaching an agreement with our unions, but they cannot legally lock our members until the end of the cooling-off period,” the union said in a statement. “Instead, they are locking down their customers starting Monday and further harming the supply chain in an attempt to provoke congressional action.”

PEB proposals included an immediate 14% raise for 115,000 union members working for the railroad, including backlogs through 2020, and raises totaling 24% over the five-year term of the contract from 2020 to 2024 The plan was good enough for eight of the 12 unions, which together represent about 45,000 railroad employees, to agree to a tentative labor agreement. The most recent deals came this weekend.

But four of the groups, including the two largest unions which represent the engineers and conductors who make up the two-person crews on each train, have so far refused to accept the PEB’s proposal.

Two of the unions – those representing train crew members – say their members would never ratify a contract that included current staffing levels and scheduling rules. They say the worker shortage has forced their members to be on call to report to work on short notice seven days a week, even on days they are not supposed to work. These rules do not apply to members of unions that have reached tentative agreements.

The engineers’ and drivers’ unions account for about half of the union members working for the railways. And if they go on strike, even if the other unions all agree to stay at work, the trains won’t run.

The railway management says that the PEB considered the union’s requests for timetables and was “expressly rejected”.

“It is essential that the remaining unions quickly reach agreements that provide wage increases for employees and prevent disruptions to rail service,” management said. He said agreements with the remaining unions should be “based on PEB’s recommendation”.

But the unions of engineers and drivers are pushing their allies in Congress not to take any action to impose a labor agreement on workers who have not yet reached an agreement, or to extend the cooling-off period. The unions say only a strike can solve the problem, and if management wants to avoid a strike, they must agree to set the working rules.

“Rather than blocking the supply chain by refusing shipments…. the railways should work towards a fair settlement that our members, their employees, would ratify,” the unions said. “For this to happen, we need to make improvements to working conditions that have been on the bargaining table since negotiations began.

US Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, who met with the two sides in mediation talks last week, re-engaged the two sides on Sunday to push them to reach a resolution that avoids any shutdown, according to a statement from a spokesperson for the Department of Labor. He also canceled a trip to Ireland to give a speech there due to negotiations over the railway work.

“All parties should remain at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement,” the statement said. “The fact that we are already seeing some impacts from contingency planning by the railroads further demonstrates that a shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid that.”

– CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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