Calls for government intervention to prevent a rail strike in early-to-mid-December became louder Monday, with more than 400 state and national trade groups asking the majority and minority leaders of Congress to prevent a rail strike that would disrupt the flow of goods as soon as next week and could further hobble the pre-recessionary US economy.
In a Monday letter to Congress seen by Freightwaves, the US Chamber of Commerce sent a letter on Monday, signed by dozens of other business lobbying groups, to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling on them to intervene to prevent a labor strike or a lockout by the freight railroads. The Chamber and these groups have made similar calls before, and some of the groups plan a press conference for Tuesday; the groups pleaded with congressional leaders to address the possible rail strike, calling it a “matter of grave urgency” because of the potential billions of dollars such a shutdown could cost the U.S. economy.
“No one wins when the railroads stop running,” the letter said. “Congress recognized their necessity to interstate commerce and America’s economic health with the passage of the Railway Labor Act and past congressional interventions in rail labor disputes when other steps failed. Indeed, Congress has intervened 18 times since 1926 in labor negotiations that threaten interstate commerce and there is no reason why Congress should deviate from this record today.
“While a voluntary agreement with the four holdout unions is the best outcome, the risks to America’s economy and communities simply make a national rail strike unacceptable. Therefore, absent a voluntary agreement, we call on you [Congress] to take immediate steps to prevent a national rail strike and the certain economic destruction that would follow.”
Members of four rail unions have failed to ratify a labor agreement, while eight others have ratified theirs. The cooling-off period in which neither the unions nor railroads can take any corrective actions ends just after midnight EST on Dec. 9, which means that on Dec 10 the US economy could find itself paralyzed all over again.
The two sides are in negotiations but the railroads said they would not deviate far from the recommendations of the panel, while union leaders said they must win new concessions, such as paid sick days, to take back to their workers. If no agreement has been reached before then, union members could go on strike or the railroads could lock out union workers.
The four unions to have not ratified labor deals consist of over 56% of all unionized workers who have been seeking to receive a new contract since January 2020. They include two of the larger unions, one representing train conductors and the other maintenance-of-way employees.
“As provided for under federal law and consistent with past practice, Congress must be prepared to intervene before the end of the current ‘status quo’ period on Dec. 9 to ensure continued rail service should railroads and [the] four unions fail to reach a voluntary agreement. A strike by any one union would assuredly result in a stoppage of national rail service,” said the letter signed by the Agriculture Transport Coalition, American Chemistry Council, American Petroleum Institute and National Retail Federation, among others.
The letter also hearkened back to September, when freight railroads reduced their operations of handling hazardous materials ahead of a potential strike as a security measure. That strike could have occurred had the two largest rail unions — the ones representing train conductors and locomotive engineers — failed to reach a tentative agreement. After reaching that deal, the locomotive engineers voted to ratify it, but the train conductors ultimately turned it down.
“Many businesses will see the impacts of a national rail strike well before Dec. 9 — through service disruptions and other impacts potentially as early as Dec. 5,” the letter said. “The sooner this labor impasse ends, the better for our communities and our national economy.”
Late on Monday, the WSJ reported that Joe Biden joined the trade groups in calling on Congress to pass legislation to adopt a tentative labor agreement in an effort to avert a rail shutdown that could hurt the economy before the holiday season.
"As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement," Biden said in a statement. “But in this case—where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families—I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Biden is directly involved in the matter and “has had conversations with members of Congress on this particular issue in case resolving the issue falls to them, as it has 18 times in the last 60 years.”
The White House and congressional leaders say a strike would be unacceptable but that the companies and unions need to resolve their disagreements. The White House appointed a panel over the summer to mediate the discussions. Eight unions have ratified the deal that came out of those talks, but four haven't.
Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress can make both sides accept an agreement that their members have voted down. Likewise, lawmakers can order negotiations to continue and delay the strike deadline for a certain period, or they could send the dispute to outside arbitrators.