WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Rail Strike Brinksmanship Looms Over Holidays

Even if a threatened rail strike is averted at the 11th hour on December 4—the expiration of the “cooling-off” period for one of the rail unions—we are already being affected by it. There is some confusion about when a strike would actually begin because another union’s cooling off period ends December 8. 

According to federal safety measures, railroad carriers begin officially preparing for a strike seven days before the announced strike date, although most begin earlier than that. The carriers start to prioritize the securing and movement of security-sensitive materials like chlorine for drinking water and hazardous materials. Chemicals are not transported in the 96 hours before a strike date. 

One of the railroads’ biggest customers is UPS, the package-delivery service. Expect some hiccups in deliveries of Christmas presents this year. 

Farmers would be especially hard-hit, particularly since low water has already drastically slowed their exports. According to AAR, railroads annually transport 1.5 million carloads of grain—including 340,000 carloads of soybeans and 248,000 carloads of processed soybeans (primarily soybean meal and soybean oil). About 691,000 carloads of corn and 305,000 carloads of wheat are annually transported by rail. Like the inland waterways, railroads are a key contributor to U.S. agriculture being the most competitive supplier in the international marketplace. 

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How did we get here? Negotiations over the issues underlying the union members’ grievances have been ongoing for more than three years. Although a 24 percent pay increase was agreed to in September, after the Presidential Emergency Board intervened, no progress was made on issues involving paid time off and sick time. Those issues are the most important to union members who argue that attrition of more than 40,000 employees since 2018 has left them stressed and subject to what they see as punitive on-call policies.  

On its website, the Association of American Railroads admits, “There is a common misperception that railroads have imposed draconian work rules and arbitrarily or abusively deny employees time off.” The spokesperson for the AAR opined as recently as November 17 that an agreement could still be reached. Yet the AAR insists that any agreement be within the framework of the September 17 recommendations of the PEB. Angry union members who have formed a cross-union umbrella group, Railroad Workers United, feel the PEB made no good-faith efforts to address the sick-time issues. 

All sides acknowledge that a railroad strike would deal a catastrophic blow to the nation’s economy—especially now, at this time of low water when barge traffic is still severely restricted. Leaders of two of the rail unions insist they will not budge, even if Congress is forced to intervene—which they admit is possible. 

Is the AAR counting on Congress intervening? Republicans have already indicated they’re OK with forcing a settlement based on the PEB recommendations. Asking a Democratic-majority Congress (until January, at least) to defy unions and impose a settlement is a big gamble, but that’s what would have to happen. Perhaps railroads are looking back to 1992, when Congress quickly ended the last rail strike by a bipartisan bill banning both strikes and company lockouts.

Conventional wisdom is insisting that something will happen to avert a strike at the last minute. Either the parties will agree where they could not for three years, or Congress will intervene. But both sides appear to believe they will come out winners by playing brinksmanship. Excuse us for being apprehensive.