With the two sides still unable to reach an agreement and with a
freight rail strike looming, union officials and representatives
of the railroads are heading to Washington, DC, on Wednesday
where they will meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, according
officials with each union and a Department of Labor spokesperson.
While the sources stressed that the situation remains fluid, the
two main unions that have lingering disputes with the railroads
– the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART
Transportation Division – are expected to send their union
chiefs to the meeting.
“Continuing the administration’s sustained engagement and hands-
on efforts to encourage the parties to come to a mutually
beneficial agreement, tomorrow morning Secretary Walsh will host
the rail companies and the unions in Washington, DC at the
Department of Labor,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The Wednesday meeting puts Walsh at the center of the high
stakes effort to avert what would be a debilitating strike that
could deal a major blow to the economy.
CNN reported earlier Tuesday that the White House is urgently
discussing contingency plans as the threat of a rail shut down
looms, with agencies across the federal government working
through how they could potentially use federal authority to keep
critical supply chains operational as labor talks continue to
sit at an impasse.
The work has ramped up in recent days as officials have grown
increasingly concerned about a labor strike if freight-rail
labor negotiations fail to produce an agreement ahead of
Friday’s deadline. And President Joe Biden personally called
rail unions and companies on Monday while visiting Boston in an
attempt to avert a rail shut down, White House press secretary
Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
While officials have been closely watching the developments –
and have gotten directly involved in an effort to find a
resolution – for several weeks, accelerated efforts to plan for
a worst case scenario underscore the stakes of an outcome that
would lead to massive supply chain disruptions, and dual-pronged
political and economic risk.
“The White House is working with other modes of transportation
(including shippers, truckers, air freight) to see how they can
step in and keep goods moving, in case of a rail shutdown,” a
White House official told CNN on Tuesday.
The official added that the administration “has also been
working with relevant agencies to assess what supply chains and
commodities are most likely to face severe disruptions, and the
emergency authorities available to keep goods moving.”
About 60,000 union members who work for the railroad are set to
go on strike, including the engineers and conductors who make up
the two-person crews on each train. Even though 45,000 other
union members belong to unions that have reached tentative deals
with the railroads, a strike by engineers and conductors would
bring the freight rail system, which carries nearly 30% of the
nation’s freight, to a grinding halt.
Stakeholders are already warning that the situation is dire, the
US Chamber of Commerce detailing some of the urgent issues in a
letter to congressional leadership on Monday.
“A shutdown of the nation’s rail service would have enormous
national consequences,” chamber executive vice president and
chief policy officer Neil L. Bradley said in the letter.
He continued, “It would lead to perishable foods such dairy,
fruits, and vegetables spoiling at their points of origin, would
halt Amtrak service for approximately 12.2 million daily riders
in 46 states, would disrupt materials and goods being delivered
to factories and ports, and would inhibit the transport of
heating fuel and other important fuels and chemicals. These are
only a few examples of the damage of a rail shutdown.”
Biden continues to receive regular updates on the high-stakes
negotiations, including briefings on the matter Monday evening
and Tuesday morning.
Senior-level engagements were expected to continue 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 toward “identifying the sectors
and the goods that will be most immediately and significantly
impacted by a rail stoppage.”
One area of key concern is hazardous materials carried by rail.
“We are paying particular attention to hazardous materials
carried by rail, to protect the safety of workers and
communities and to support the continued distribution of vital
hazardous materials that depend on rail transport, such as
chlorine for water treatment plants,” said the official, who
added that “all tools are on the table and will be deployed as
While concern about a strike has heightened 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 head off a strike, but Congress can still act to
prevent a work stoppage.
“We hope this planning and preparation will prove unnecessary
and that negotiating parties will agree to a resolution and not
allow American workers, families, and businesses to be hurt by a
rail stoppage. We have been clear in all our communications with
the negotiating parties that a shutdown is unacceptable and will
hurt American workers, families, and businesses, and they must
take action to avert it,” the official said.
This story and headline have been updated with additional