Freight rail strike threatens supply chains, prompting White House planning

A national railroad strike could derail critical deliveries of chlorine to wastewater treatment plants and coal to utility plants, among other potentially crippling disruptions, prompting senior White House aides Tuesday to review contingency options for protecting the nation’s drinking water and energy supply.White House aides are looking at how to ensure essential products carried by rail — such as food, energy, and key health products — could still reach their final destination even in the event of a potential strike. Senior officials have looked at how highways, ports and waterways can be used to offset any damage caused, while also talking to top officials in the shipping, freight and logistics industries.President Biden was personally briefed on the matter Tuesday morning, after he called the carriers and unions on Monday to press them to accept a deal, a White House official said. Senior officials at the White House are now leading daily meetings with the Agriculture Department, Transportation Department, Energy Department and other top agencies about how to mitigate the impact. Biden aides in particular are working to ensure hazardous materials carried by rail are safely transported without hurting workers. The White House is also studying potential authorities to mitigate any damage but has made no announcement. The White House’s planning was described by multiple people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal planning.At issue is a contract agreement between railway carriers and two unions, which represent 57,000 conductors and engineers over attendance policies. A federally mandated “cooling-off” period ends Friday, which opens the possibility of a strike, if employees refuse to go to work, or a lockout, if the carriers refuse to let workers do their jobs.Some freight carriers have begun limiting services, suspending hazardous material shipments and parking trains in what appears to be preparations for a lockout. Amtrak, which carries passengers on freight lines, canceled some long-distance routes Monday.Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute, following two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions that represent railroad workers. Nine unions have reached tentative agreements with the carriers based on the board’s recommendations, leaving the two largest unions without a deal in place. A smaller union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, struck down a tentative deal with the carriers on Monday night and have returned to the bargaining table.Amtrak cancels some long-distance trips as freight strike threat loomsContract negotiations on Zoom between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the SMART Transportation Division and the rail carriers carried late into the day on Monday, without the parties reaching a deal, labor officials from both unions said.The most important issues holding up an agreement are some of the largest carriers’ points-based attendance policies that penalize workers, up to termination, for going to routine doctor’s visits or attending family emergencies. Conductors and engineers say they do not receive a single sick day, paid or unpaid.The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents the railroads in negotiations, has denied that workers do not receive sick time, and it has said that its ability to determine attendance policies is necessary to ensure enough train operators are available to work amid labor shortages.“You may have heard from labor that they get no sick days or paid time off. This is false,” said Jessica Kahanek, a spokesperson for Association of American Railroads, noting that some workers supplemental sick leave benefit, and can take time off for any reason, as long as they maintain a reasonable level of overall availability under carrier attendance policies. While the unions said they have watered down some of their proposals, abandoning requests for paid sick days, they remain steadfast that members should be allowed to attend routine medical appointments without jeopardizing their employment. They said they are willing to accept a contract that addresses these concerns and are ready to strike if the carriers do not budge on it. As of Tuesday morning, the carriers had not made any counterproposals to this offer, the two unions said.As U.S. rail strike looms, White House aides scramble to avert crisisTwo of the largest rail carriers that mainly operate in the western United States — BNSF and Union Pacific — are the companies with the points-based attendance policies. More than 700 BNSF employees have quit since it rolled out a points-based policy in February. Workers can be terminated if they run out of points, even in the case of a family emergency. Missing work on certain high impact days, or planning ahead for a single doctor’s visit, can result in workers losing half or more of their allotted points.“They have refused to accept our proposals,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the two unions in negotiations. “The average American would not know that we get fired for going to the doctor. This one thing has our members most enraged. We have guys who were punished for taking time off for a heart attack and covid. It’s inhumane.”

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