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Biden administration prepares for a possible railroad employee strike

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The White House has been preparing contingency plans to maintain key goods moving and transportation lines open if union railroad employees strike later this week, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

“We’re working with other modes of transportation including shippers, truckers and air freight to see how they’ll step in and keep goods moving in case of this rail shutdown,” Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing. “The administration has also been working with relevant agencies to evaluate what supply chains and commodities are almost certainly to face severe disruptions.”

President Joe Biden and a number of other of Cabinet secretaries, including those representing the departments of Labor, Agriculture and Transportation, have been in talks for months with the unions and the businesses to attempt to avert the strike, Jean-Pierre said. The administration, she added, has had a whole bunch of calls and meetings over the problem because the early spring.

Shipping containers sit within the BNSF Railway intermodal facility on July 28, 2021 in Cicero, Illinois.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

“We now have made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families, businesses, farmers and communities would experience in the event that they weren’t to achieve a resolution,” Jean-Pierre said.

Union railroad employees have threatened to strike if their demands over pay and dealing conditions aren’t met. Negotiations are hung up on the problem of unpaid sick time, including the power to take off work for routine doctor’s appointments.

Greater than 700 union employees quit after BNSF Railway, an entirely owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, instituted a points-based attendance system in February. Railroad corporations say employees have already got generous leave policies, but labor leaders argue that employees have trouble taking days off because they will not be on a set schedule.

Eight of the 12 unions reached tentative agreements with the rail carriers as of Tuesday morning, in accordance with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, up from five every week ago.

But two of the most important unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division, which combined represent half of railroad union employees, are still negotiating. That leaves about 60,000 employees able to strike if a deal doesn’t occur by Friday.

“We encourage folks to stay on the negotiation table to provide you with a resolution. This is very important due to what this might mean to the American people, what this might mean to American families,” Jean-Pierre said.

About 40% of the nation’s long-distance trade is moved by rail. If the unions strike, greater than 7,000 trains could be idled, costing as much as an estimated $2 billion per day.

Already Americans have begun to feel the consequences of a possible strike. Amtrak canceled a few of its longer-distance rail services starting Tuesday including routes between Chicago and the West Coast along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder lines, and portions of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route between Los Angeles and San Antonio.

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