Biden strives to stop rail strike

Reports are emerging that President Biden and his staff have negotiated a deal to avoid an anticipated rail strike. On Thursday (15th September) The US Secretary of State for Labor commented on his twitter account that “following more than 20 consecutive hours of negotiations at the US Department of Labor, the rail companies and union negotiators came to a tentative agreement that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy.”

The ‘Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’ and the ‘SMART Transportation Division/United Transportation Union’ had been threatening to strike on the BNSF and Union Pacific rail network from Friday 16th . A previous ‘cooling-off period’ of thirty days had been imposed by the White House after negotiations failed last month, however whilst some unions have accepted a deal other have not.

It appears that the main issue in dispute is not pay but working time. In particular the unions say that BNSF and Union Pacific make it hard for railway workers to take time off for medical reasons. The question of work schedules has become a sensitive one as the US freight rail companies have sought to work their assets harder in order to improve returns over the past few years. The effect has been that the workforce has been forced to adapt to less flexible and predictable shifts.

Mr Biden has been eager to avoid labour problems within the logistics infrastructure. He has already intervened in the negotiations between the port companies and the port workers unions, imposing both a compulsory mediator and a cooling-off period. He has done the same with the rail sector, for the impact of any disruption in these sectors would be highly disruptive to the US economy, both for domestic traffic but also for international container movements. A rail strike would threaten the possibility of plunging the container terminals back into crisis just as they have crawled-out from problems of the past year-and-a-half. It would also have a disproportionate impact on bulk-freight sectors such as chemicals, agricultural commodities and hydro-carbon production at a time when many of these markets are experiencing significant price inflation. These are problems that the US Government is eager to avoid. Consequently, it should be expected that politicians will exert themselves to avoid trouble.

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Source: Transport Intelligence, 15th September 2022

Author: Thomas Cullen