Freight rail strike threatens supply chains, prompting White House planning

The Washington Post | by Jeff Stein, Lauren Gurley, Tyler Pager | September 13, 2022

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 on 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 destinations, even in the event of a 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 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 Departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Energy and other top agencies about how to mitigate the impact. Biden aides in particular are working to ensure that hazardous materials carried by rail are safely transported without hurting workers. The White House actions were described by multiple people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal planning.

Administration officials have also been in regular contact with Greg Abel, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, while trying to find a solution. Berkshire Hathaway owns BNSF, one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America.

Negotiations between the carriers and unions are ongoing, and a deal could emerge at any point.

At issue is a dispute between railway carriers and two unions, representing 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.

“We’re not that far apart in negotiations,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that has not reached a deal. He said the carriers BNSF and Union Pacific are holding up negotiations.

In the meantime, some freight carriers have begun limiting services, suspending hazmat shipments and parking trains in what appears to be preparation for a lockout, according to union officials and labor experts. Amtrak, which carries passengers on freight lines, on Monday canceled some long-distance routes, ruining travel plans for hundreds of passengers. Amtrak cancellations, passenger frustrations grow amid strike threat

Jessica Kahanek, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, a freight rail industry group, said that the carriers “are not planning a lockout on Friday if ongoing negotiations remain unresolved.”

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 has returned to the bargaining table.

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