Unions and rail officials head to DC as White House urgently weighs contingency plans amid rail closure threat



CNN

With both sides still unable to reach an agreement and with a freight train strike looming, union officials and railroad representatives are headed to Washington, DC, on Wednesday, where they will meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, according to officials from each union and a Department of Labor spokesman.

While the sources stressed that the situation remains fluid, the two main unions that have persistent disputes with the railways, the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers and the SMART Transportation Division, are expected to send their union bosses to the meeting. .

“Continuing the sustained commitment and practical efforts of the administration to encourage the parties to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, tomorrow morning Secretary Walsh will host the railroads and unions in Washington, DC at the Department of I work,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Wednesday’s meeting puts Walsh at the center of the high-stakes effort to avert what would be a debilitating strike that could deal a huge blow to the economy.

CNN reported Tuesday that the White House is urgently discussing contingency plans as The threat of a railway closure is loomingwith agencies across the federal government working on how they could potentially use federal authority to keep critical supply chains operational while labor negotiations still sitting in a dead end.

Work has intensified in recent days as officials grow increasingly concerned about a labor strike if freight and rail labor talks fail to reach an agreement by Friday’s deadline. And President Joe Biden personally called unions and railroad companies Monday while he was visiting Boston in an attempt to prevent a train shutdown, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

While officials have been closely watching developments, and have been directly involved in an effort to find a solution, for several weeks they have accelerated efforts to plan underscore worst case the stakes of an outcome that would lead to massive supply chain disruptions and double-pronged political and economic risk.

“The White House is working with other modes of transportation — including carriers, truckers, air cargo — to see how they can step in and keep goods moving, in the event of a rail closure,” a White House official told CNN on Thursday. Tuesday.

The official added that the administration “has also been working with relevant agencies to assess which supply chains and commodities are most likely to face serious disruptions, and the emergency authorities available to keep goods moving.”

Some 60,000 union members who work for the railroad will go on strike, including the engineers and conductors who make up the two-person crews on each train. Although another 45,000 union members belong to unions that have reached tentative agreements with the railroads, a strike by engineers and drivers would cripple the freight rail system, which carries nearly 30% of the country’s freight.

Stakeholders are already warning that the situation is dire, with the US Chamber of Commerce detailing some of the pressing issues in a letter to congressional leaders on Monday.

“Shutting down the nation’s rail service would have enormous national consequences,” the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, Neil L. Bradley, said in the letter.

It continued: “It would cause perishable foods, such as dairy, fruits and vegetables, to spoil at their points of origin, stop Amtrak service for approximately 12.2 million daily passengers in 46 states, disrupt the delivery of materials and goods to factories and ports, and would inhibit the transportation of heating oil and other important fuels and chemicals. These are just a few examples of the damage from a rail closure.”

Biden continues to receive regular updates on the high-stakes negotiations, including briefings on the matter Monday night and Tuesday morning.

High-level engagements were expected to continue on Tuesday. There are conversations with industry leaders and also “multiple interagency meetings” happening daily with the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Energy, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the official said, with efforts to “identify the sectors and assets that will be most immediately and significantly affected by a rail stoppage.”

A key area of ​​concern is hazardous materials transported by rail.

“We are paying special attention to hazardous materials transported by rail, to protect the safety of workers and communities, and to support the continued distribution of vital hazardous materials that rely on rail transportation, such as chlorine for water treatment plants.” said the official. who added that “all the tools are on the table and will be implemented as appropriate.”

While concern about a strike has grown at the White House in recent days, the administration remains hopeful that the matter will be resolved. The president does not have the authority to prevent a strike, but Congress can still act to prevent a work stoppage.

“We hope that this planning and preparation will prove unnecessary and that the negotiating parties will agree to a resolution and not allow America’s workers, families and businesses to be harmed by a rail stoppage. We have been clear in all of our communications with the negotiating parties that a shutdown is unacceptable and will harm American workers, families and businesses, and they must take steps to prevent it,” the official said.

This story and the headline were updated with additional details on Tuesday.

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