Almost 115,000 rail workers are set to go on strike Thursday at midnight, absent intervention from the government, as a mandatory “cooling off” period comes to a close. As negotiations stall between rail unions and rail carriers, nearly 40% of long distance trade hangs in the balance.
Although only two of the twelve rail worker’s unions have failed to reach deals with the industry’s bargaining committee, all twelve unions agreed to walk off the job if even a single union fails to secure a contract.
It is estimated any strike will cost the US economy as much as $2 billion per day, according to figures from the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The US Chamber of Commerce has referred to a potential strike as a “national economic disaster,” and other industry leaders have warned the impact of such a strike would double each day as it continued. due to the growing backlog of cargo. Experts warn that coming at a time of record inflation, such a supply chain constraint would surely push consumer prices even higher.
The administration is looking to secure “other modes of transportation,” for any affected cargo, however it was noted that the trucking industry is already short 80,000 drivers, and it would require 467,000 long-haul trucks to move the cargoes.
In July, a Presidential Emergency Board recommended a 14% wage increase for workers and stronger benefits, however the unions have said they will not accept any agreement which does not address the “brutal” attendance policies that presently require they remain “on call” 90% of the time.
A union spokesperson said in an interview on Monday, “If this contract is presented to our members in its current form, it will not pass.”
Although railroads claim they need such attendance policies to ensure they always have sufficient manpower on hand, and are actively recruiting new workers to ease the manpower shortage, the US Surface Transportation Board says major carriers have cut staffing by 29% over the last six years.
Carriers have already begun preparations for a strike, securing sensitive cargo and hazardous materials. Amtrak has canceled all long-distance routes beginning Thursday. Although Amtrak’s employees are not involved in the negotiations, 97% of its service is operated on rail lines which employ the striking unions. Amtrak has noted however that passenger service in the northeast corridor, from Washington, DC to Boston via New York City, will not see any changes.
The last rail strike was in 1992. After two days, Congress intervened, ordering both sides into binding arbitration. Analysts note such an intervention might be less likely this time, heading into the fall mid-terms, when the Biden administration will be keen maintain the full support of its union constituency.
On the other hand, as inflation rages and the voting public finds their pocketbooks strained as the economy is under threat, it is possible there will be a contravening pressure, driving the administration to see to it there are not any further supply chain disruptions contributing to already record levels of inflation.