FAQ: What to know about the possible rail worker strike


FILE – A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF Railway has gone to court to determine whether it has the authority to require all its employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. BNSF filed a lawsuit Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, against its major unions over its mandate. It joins Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, which both filed similar lawsuits against the unions last month. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown File)

(NewsNation) — Some 115,000 freight rail workers could go on strike as soon as Friday if rail companies can’t reach a deal with 12 labor unions negotiating contracts — a shutdown that could cost billions of dollars a day and cause a devastating ripple effect across the U.S. economy.

As of Wednesday, 5,000 railway workers at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) voted to authorize a strike, but negotiations are continuing until September 29.

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Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing negotiations.

what’s left to negotiate?

In July, President Joe Biden’s administration established an emergency board to help settle the dispute between the major rail carriers and a dozen unions. Last month, that board issued recommendations calling for 24% raises over a five-year period, $5,000 in bonuses and one additional paid leave day a year.

Nine of the unions reached tentative agreements in line with those recommendations but discussions with two others — which represent 57,000 conductors and engineers — are still ongoing.

At issue for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and SMART Transportation Division are strict attendance and scheduling policies the unions say make it hard to take any time off, even for “routine medical visits.”

who will be impacted by a strike?

A freight rail worker strike would impact both trade and commuters alike, with more than 140,000 miles of rail across 49 states affected, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry trade group.

With rail accounting for approximately 28% of all freight movement in the country, AAR estimates that shutting down the railroads would cost the economy at least $2 billion per day.

The trade group says 467,000 additional long-haul trucks would be needed to handle the freight disruptions in what would be the latest blow to a logistics network that’s struggled to recover since the pandemic.

Amtrak riders would also feel the effects, since 97% of the rail service’s tracks are owned and maintained by freight railroads, according to AAR.

In a letter to Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the largest business lobbying organization in the country, said a strike would halt Amtrak service for approximately 12.2 million daily riders in 46 states.

On Monday, Amtrak canceled multiple cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike.

can a shutdown be prevented?

If the two sides can’t reach a deal by Friday, Congress could intervene to prevent a walkout. That could take one of two forms: Lawmakers could adopt the recommendations laid out by the presidential emergency board last month or extend the negotiating period, according to Bloomberg Law.

The current situation is not without precedent. In 1991, Congress stepped in to halt a national railroad strike less than 24 hours after it began. Now, they could do the same.

“There is a role for Congress if in fact they fail to reach an agreement,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on Bloomberg Television Monday. “We can pass legislation if needed.”

The unions have asked Congress to stay out of it and say the two sides should be allowed to negotiate until they reach an agreement.

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