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Railways Face ‘Total Shutdown’ Without Union Deal by Deadline

Sept. 13, 2022, 9:26 AM

Close to 125,000 railroad workers are prepared to walk off the job at the end of the week if freight-rail companies don’t reach agreements with all the labor groups negotiating contracts now, raising the specter of a complete shutdown of the US rail system.

While nine of 12 railroad unions involved in the dispute had reached or were close to reaching tentative agreements with freight carriers as of Monday, members of those unions also would refuse to work unless a deal is reached with the whole group, leaders said.

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“It would be a total shutdown of all crafts, all trade unions honoring the picket line, not showing up to work,” said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, an umbrella group that supports the railroad unions.

It’s unusual for unions to threaten to walk off the job after reaching an agreement with management. Going on strike after a deal is reached is seen as undercutting the agreement, in addition to potentially strategically unwise because it could give an employer justification to back out entirely.

Organized labor is also loath to betray other unions by working while their peers are on strike. But there’s a difference between going on strike and not showing up to work in solidarity with other unions, leaders say.

“Hopefully they can resolve their issues and the railroads come to their senses,” said F. Leo McCann, president of the American Train Dispatchers Association, one of the unions that has reached a tentative agreement with rail carriers. If not, he said, “the ATDA will honor any picket lines and any strikes.”

Snarling Supply Chains

The National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the rail companies, said Sept. 11 that the companies don’t believe it’s “necessary or appropriate” to extend negotiations past Friday, setting up a clash that could snarl already-stressed US supply chains.

The two unions that haven’t reached agreements—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the SMART Transportation Division—represent about half the workforce. Both groups declined to comment, but said in a statement Sept. 11 that the freight companies were engaging in “corporate terrorism.”

The unions have until Sept. 16 to reach a deal with the rail companies, when a federally mandated waiting period ends and they are allowed to strike. President Joe Biden and members of his Cabinet spoke to freight-rail companies and unions to avoid a strike, underscoring how badly the unrest could hurt the president’s approval rates and Democrats in the midterm elections.

The unions are still pressing toward an agreement, and continued talks with freight-rail carriers past midnight Sept. 11, according to an official familiar with the negotiations who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. There was some movement at the bargaining table Monday, but the companies still haven’t agreed to let workers take unpaid time off for doctor appointments without being penalized, said another union official close to the negotiations.

Congress could step in to avert a strike, either by adopting recommendations of a presidential emergency board released last month or by extending the negotiating period. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Monday that lawmakers could pass legislation to end a strike if needed.

Congress in 1991 swiftly ended a national railroad strike less than a day after it began. This time, however, a similar scenario could meet resistance from progressives in Congress who are “not going to preside over any kind of strike-breaking activity,” said former Communications Workers of America union president Larry Cohen, an adviser to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “The rail companies are going to have to realize they don’t have the leverage here.”

—With assistance from Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg News)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com