Potential Railroad Strike
*Update: The unions and rail carriers agreed to a tentative deal on Thursday, September 15, 2022. These agreements must be ratified by the unions’ memberships.
On Friday, September 16, 2022, railroad workers could go on strike. This would effectively shut down the nation’s freight rail system and have spillover effects on commuter rail like Amtrak, which is already canceling long-distance routes. If a strike or lockout occurs, Congress has the ability to intervene and has done so in the past.
An economic analysis by the American Association of Railroads using the Federal Railroad Administration’s model found a railroad shutdown could cost our economy $2 billion per day. Similarly, a coalition of agricultural organizations said in a letter to Congress, “Uninterrupted rail service is vital to the American agricultural economy.”
Railway Labor Act
America’s railroad system and workers fall under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) rather than the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Contracts under the RLA do not expire like the NLRA nor do state Right-to-Work laws apply to rail workers. Instead, the RLA empowers the National Mediation Board (NMB) to assist with mediation and impose cooling-off periods when both sides may continue to negotiate without risk of a strike and allows the president to empanel a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to investigate and set forth nonbinding contract recommendations.
The PEB issued its contract recommendations on August 16, 2022, and the last of NMB-declared cooling off periods will end on Friday, September 16, 2022.
Status of Negotiations
Collective bargaining has been underway since 2019 between major rail carriers, dubbed “Class I Carriers,” and the 12 unions representing rail workers. Class I Carriers are represented in the negotiations by the National Carrier Conference Committee (NCCC). The carriers are:
- Canadian National
- Kansas City Southern
- Norfolk Southern
- Union Pacific
The rail unions are:
- American Train Dispatchers Association
- Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
- Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees
- Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen
- International Association of Machinists
- International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
- Mechanical Division of International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART)
- National Conference of Firemen & Oilers
- SMART Transportation Division
- Transport Workers
- Transportation Communications
Most of the unions have reportedly agreed to tentative agreements. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division, however, continue to push for more than was recommended by Biden’s PEB which they say, “got it wrong.” They said in a joint statement, “Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism.” A strike by one or two of the involved unions could have a cascading effect with other labor organizations joining the strike or a lockout by the rail carriers.
The PEB’s report found the railroads were offering a wage increase of 17% spread over five years and backdated to 2020, while the labor organizations were proposing a wage increase of 31% spread over the same time frame. The PEB recommended wage increases of 24% spread over the five-year window and backdated to 2020 with $1,000 annual bonuses. PEB also recommended workers receive an additional day of paid time off and improvements in health benefits. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division are pushing for better working conditions for train conductors and engineers.
Could Congress Intervene?
If the remaining parties are unable to reach agreement by the end of the cooling off period it is not required that a work stoppage occur. A strike or lockout would be a choice and could spur direct congressional action. As it has done in years past, Congress could pass legislation to extend the cooling-off period, adopt the PEB’s recommendations, or create a new PEB and restart the investigation and recommendation process.
On Monday, September 12, 2022, Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced a resolution, S.J.Res. 61, to adopt the PEB’s recommendations if the negotiating parties are not able to reach voluntary agreement. Burr said in a statement, “The Presidential Emergency Board recommendations are a fair and appropriate solution to a years-long negotiation process, but labor unions are continuing to hold the entire nation’s rail system hostage as they demand more.”
Other legislation could also be introduced in either chamber in the coming days.
The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials has scheduled a hearing for Thursday, September 15, 2022, on “Rail Service Challenges and the Impact on Agriculture.”
As U. S. rail strike looms, White House aides scramble to avert crisis
September 12, 2022, Washington Post
Tyler Pager, Lauren Kaori Gurley, Jeff Stein
Freight railway worker strife simmers, Labor conflict explained
August 22, 2022
Ian Kullgren, Bloomberg Law
Senators’ legislation seeks to avert freight rail stoppage
September 12, 2022
Ellyn Ferguson, Roll Call
Railways Face ‘Total Shutdown’ Without Union Deal by Deadline
September 13, 2022
Ian Kullgren, Bloomberg Law
Labor Update: Avoid Misinformation Cesspool
September 11, 2022
Frank N. Wilner, Railway Age