White House scrambles to avert impending railroad strike

President Biden called on union leaders and railroad companies on Monday, demanding an agreement to avert a nationwide railroad strike days before much of the country’s transportation infrastructure is shut down, a House official says. White.

Biden administration officials have also begun preparing for a potential shutdown, warning that a strike could seriously harm the US economy, as well as Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, according to two people familiar with. folder.

Additionally, senior White House officials held emergency meetings, led by the White House National Economic Council last week, and attended by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Additionally, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is involved in trying to mediate the standoff, the two people said.

The standoff pits two of Biden’s top priorities against each other. The president has been a strong advocate for unionized workers, but does not want a breakdown in the nation’s transportation infrastructure that would disrupt commuter and passenger services.

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The administration has little time to act: The nationwide railroad shutdown is set to take effect after midnight Friday, and unions and management are at an impasse over tough issues such as sick leave and penalties for absence at work. It would be the first such strike in about three decades.

Already, Amtrak has begun warning passengers that the interruptions will begin on Tuesday on its national network. The passenger railway said it was pulling trains on three long-distance routes “to avoid possible disruption to passengers during the journey”.

“These adjustments are necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before freight rail service is disrupted if a resolution in negotiations is not reached,” Amtrak said in a statement.

The freight industry has warned that the strike would shut down 30% of the nation’s freight and “stop most passenger and commuter rail services.” The Association of American Railroads says a freight rail closure could “devastate” Amtrak operations, with about half of commuter rail systems operating at least partially on owned tracks or rights-of-way. to freight railways. Hundreds of thousands of daily journeys would be disrupted, the association said earlier this month.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters, announced a tentative agreement with the national rail carriers on Sunday, leaving only two of 12 unions without an agreement in place. These two groups, representing engineers and conductors, are politically powerful and the two largest railway unions in the country. The remaining 10 unions should refuse to work in solidarity.

The administration has previously come under fire for its handling of the country’s transportation infrastructure, which was wracked last year by supply chain problems and this year by an increase in cancellations and delays at airports across the country. country. Some administration officials fear spoiling Biden’s economic victories in August that helped boost Democrats’ poll numbers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, has estimated that no deal could cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion a day in lost economic output. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark said Monday that a strike would be an “economic disaster” with “catastrophic economic impacts,” calling for urgent action to resolve the dead end.

“The last thing they want right now is a major strike in a key industry like this,” said Dean Baker, a White House ally and economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “I think Biden is going to push hard to get a deal. He’ll likely push on the employer side, but I’m sure he’ll push on the union side as well…although there’s a question of who how willing he will be to push the workers.

A strike could also have a significant impact on a variety of industries – energy, autos, agriculture and retail – all of which depend on freight rails to move inventory from ports to warehouses and centers. of distribution. And the closures would cause a domino effect, crippling several sectors.

In the case of retailers, they would miss their shipping and pickup dates, leaving cargo in limbo with no place to go, according to Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chains and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. .

At issue is the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Council, appointed by Biden in July, to handle contract negotiations between major rail carriers and unions after the parties were unable to reach an agreement for two years. The board recommended a series of pay rises and annual bonuses in a 124-page report – a compromise for both parties, generous enough to remove 10 from the unions, or around 58,000 railway workers who mostly do not exploit no trains.

But the two remaining unions, which represent 57,000 workers called to strike, are unhappy that the recommendations do not address a lack of sick leave or attendance policies that penalize workers. Engineers and conductors face penalties for taking any time off, including weekends, outside holidays and scheduled vacations, even in an emergency.

Labor groups say workers have been fired for going to routine medical appointments or the funerals of family members. Conductors and engineers may be on call for 14 consecutive days, up to 12 hours per day. They also have no sick days.

And while the unions have softened their demands in recent weeks – for example, they are now asking for unpaid sick leave, instead of demanding paid sick leave – the railways have not made any counter-proposals to these claims.

The National Railroad Labor Conference, the association representing rail freight carriers in negotiations, argued that workers are already enjoying “significant” leave benefits. The carriers say they must retain the right “to unilaterally establish attendance policies”. Workers get up to five weeks of paid vacation and up to 14 paid holidays, depending on length of service, the association said. And workers can call for any reason as long as they maintain “a reasonable level of overall availability” in accordance with attendance policies.

The group representing rail carriers also pointed to Biden’s presidential emergency council for its lack of movement on sick days and attendance policies. The board did not propose any significant changes to workplace concerns, noting that the proposed wage increases offset those concerns.

Meanwhile, leaders of the two unions who failed to reach an agreement with the carriers say Biden’s emergency board grossly miscalculated the significance of these quality-of-life issues for railroad workers. They say their limbs are ready to hit them.

Engineers and conductors are particularly concerned about a new points-based attendance policy at BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. More than 700 unionized workers have quit since it was rolled out in February, but the railways insist the policy is needed to ensure sufficient numbers of workers are available as they face labor shortages ‘work. Workers can be fired if they run out of points, even in a family emergency. Missing work on some high-impact days means losing half of the points awarded to them.

“We are faced with the possibility of a strike as the railroad refuses to grant a single day of sick leave,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, l one of the unions that did not reach an agreement. . “It’s about the phone ringing at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m., after only 10 hours of rest beforehand. It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being disciplined – up to and including being fired – if you have to go to the doctor.”

Biden has made supporting unions a top priority for his administration. Many of his aides are sensitive to workers’ complaints of poor working conditions and unfair treatment by management, and are reluctant to lean too aggressively on union leaders to end the strike.

Jaclyn Peiser, Ian Duncan and Luz Lazo contributed to this article.

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