Rail talks drag on as strike deadline nears, workers prepare to picket

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So far, the preemptive impacts of any impending strike are isolated: Amtrak has canceled some long-distance trains and commuter rail lines in cities like Chicago announced plans to potentially cease service on Friday. Industry groups halted grain shipments, including corn and soybeans, and carriers ruled out dangerous and safety-sensitive shipments. US Transportation Command, the cargo and logistics arm of the military, said it was prioritizing aid to Ukraine and overseas deployments to mitigate any impact from the strike.

But if a deal cannot be reached and workers walk off the job, the impacts will quickly escalate and potentially affect virtually every area of ​​American life. This includes grocery shortages, starving livestock, coal-free power plants and more, dealing a potentially huge economic blow just as inflation begins to moderate. With the midterm elections next month, any further damage to trade could have serious political ramifications for Democrats.

“A strike that shuts down our railroads will have cascading effects across the country,” said Joshua Bolten, CEO of Business Roundtable and former White House chief of staff. “We have experienced many headwinds from supply chain issues since the start of the pandemic, and those issues would be geometrically amplified by a railroad strike.”

A sign of the gravity of the situation, political decision-makers are doing everything they can. Unions and carriers had lunch and dinner at DOL headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday as they buckled down to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who canceled a planned trip to Ireland at the last minute this week to to stay in the United States.

“Secretary Walsh continues to lead discussions at the Department of Labor between the railroads and the unions,” a DOL spokesperson said. “The parties are negotiating in good faith and are committed to staying at the table today.”

Urgent addition to talks: A division of the International Association of Machinists, District 19, announced Wednesday that its members had rejected a compromise and approved a strike no earlier than September 29.

The Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, which also fall under the IAM, said Wednesday afternoon their members had ratified tentative agreements. Still, the two are unlikely to cross picket lines for other unions that might take a different route – increasing pressure on politicians to resolve this issue before the end of a federally-mandated cooling-off period. at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday.

Unions still negotiating tentative agreements are holding out for five unpaid sick days, transportation chairman tells House Pierre DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Wednesday, which he called “not really a question.”

“We’re doing everything we can to get the railroads to accept this,” DeFazio said. Unions “originally wanted paid sick leave, they wanted more of this and more of that. They’ll take it if they get just that.

Republicans and many business interests are leaning on Congress to pass legislation that would impose a solution.

Rail freight provides ‘some of the most basic things a government owes its citizens,’ Senate Minority Leader says Mitch McConnell tweeted Wednesday. “And Democrats can’t deliver them.”

Still, Democrats in the House and Senate have signaled that they would rather not act — not even extend the cooling-off period — and that the White House ensure that the various parties sort things out for themselves.

“We would prefer to see negotiations prevail so that no action by Congress is required,” the House Speaker said. Nancy Pelosi said, adding that she had been “engaged in conversations” about how to avoid a shutdown.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday night blocked an initial attempt by GOP senators to impose the recommendations of a Biden-appointed emergency council.

“This is an issue that can and should be settled between the railroads and the unions, not by Congress,” said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre aboard Air Force One. “All parties must stay at the table and negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement.”

progressive representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) said “we want to avoid any sort of shutdown, but if we get to this point, it’s squarely on” the companies for forcing this outcome.

The council’s “recommendations were totally insufficient for the physical needs of these workers – or anyone, frankly,” she added. “If we add these labor protections, then we can get somewhere.”

representing Saloud Carbajal (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said Wednesday that — like his Senate counterparts — he would prefer the two sides reach an agreement before the Friday deadline.

Carbajal, whose subcommittee oversees U.S. ports that rely on rail freight to move goods off the docks, said another extension of a cooling off period simply allows both sides to dig in. He doesn’t know what any congressional action should look like.

“It’s always an option, but I think you have to give the process a chance and right now they’re working frantically to try to achieve that goal,” Carbajal said. “Any time Congress gets involved by having a cooling-off period and so on, that’s always an option, but it takes the pressure off of them getting together to resolve the issue.”

Most of the unions involved in the negotiations have reached tentative agreements that largely correspond to the council’s recommendations.

Still, workers will have to ratify any compromise before it can be adopted. And conductors and engineers haven’t even come to that. The council’s proposal, they say, does not address workers’ concerns on issues such as on-call policies, paid vacations, and more.

Testifying Wednesday on Capitol Hill on an unrelated issue, Donald Marcus, international president of the AFL-CIO’s Masters, Mates & Pilots affiliate, said he believes the cooling-off period will need to be extended beyond Friday. .

“I have to say I think it’s going to take more pushing to get some real action,” Marcus said. “But I’m optimistic at the end of the day.”

Chris Cadelago, Alex Daugherty, Victoria Guida and Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

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