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U.S. Rail Lines Get Ready for Disruption as Contract Talks Stall

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Published Sep 13, 2022 11:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

The negotiating period for a contract dispute between America's large railway carriers and two major rail labor unions will expire on Friday, raising concerns about the possibility of serious freight disruptions. Affected rail carriers are already suspending shipments for certain goods, and Amtrak has canceled passenger service on several long-haul routes in anticipation of a stoppage. 

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the SMART Transportation Division say that they are close to a deal with the main carriers, except for one sticking point. The wages and benefits recently recommended by a White House-appointed review board are acceptable to all parties, but an unpopular points-based employee attendance policy - which effectively prevents medical leave, workers claim - could prompt a nationwide walkout. "Our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits," claimed BLET and SMART in a joint statement. 

The unions are demanding that they be allowed to have unpaid medical leave beyond what is provided for in the points-based system. Dennis Pierce, BLET's president, accused carriers BNSF and Union Pacific of holding up the deal over this final sticking point, an accusation BNSF categorically denied.

Rail carriers have begun issuing bans on specific cargo classes in advance of the Friday deadline, anticipating a shutdown (or a lockout). Some of these cargoes are essential to industry or agriculture, like ammonia, a key fertilizer ingredient. The carriers assert that this is for safety purposes to ensure that hazardous goods are not stranded in the event of a labor action; however, union officials accuse the rail lines of "using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain" to apply pressure to political leaders and to union negotiators to force a deal. 

Congressional leaders and the Biden administration are well aware of the looming deadline and the risk of additional transport disruption. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has committed to legislating a solution to stop a strike if needed, and two Republican senators have written a resolution endorsing the review board's proposed pay package as written. At the White House, President Joe Biden has spoken with both sides to urge them to accept an agreement. 

"We are working with other modes of transportation, including shippers and truckers, air freight, to see how they can step in and keep goods moving in case of this rail shutdown,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press conference Tuesday. 

The impact of a rail shutdown would be felt at container ports on the U.S. West Coast, where rail capacity has been a key limiting factor for throughput in recent months. It would also impact grain shipments right at harvest time, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.