The president of the nation’s largest freight railway union is warning that Congress will likely get involved in order to resolve disagreements between employers and union members and steer clear of a strike.
“I’m hopeful, but I doubt it’s really in the cards,” SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson told Politico Monday night. “I’ve got a lot of issues that are outstanding; that are reasons why our guys voted it down.”
SMART-TD said Monday that the union’s members had voted against a contract with freight railroads. A cooling-off period ends on December 4, which doesn’t allow the members to stop working. At that point, they could strike.
“Something’s gotta happen by then, otherwise we’ll all walk,” Ferguson said. “It’s such a short time frame. I think we’re going to see Congress panic and step in here at some point next week, unfortunately.”
Even though eight unions have accepted the agreement, if one union decides to go on strike, all of them will join in and honor the picket lines. The president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), one of the biggest rail unions, said as much, noting that the group will adhere to the December 5 strike date of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS). As of Monday, the BRS had not said if it would prolong the cooling-off period to hit a strike date of December 9.
“Our members will certainly honor the picket line of BRS,” BLET president Dennis Pierce told CNBC. “I think every union will.”
But Ferguson believes Congress will get involved before the deadline. Congress could decide to put in place recommendations made by a board appointed by President Joe Biden, prolong the cooling-off period, or enforce the unions’ provisional deals.
He is also negotiating with rail carriers again on Tuesday with other unions that have rejected the provisional contracts.
“We’ll see if it goes anywhere,” Ferguson said, however, “carriers haven’t been willing to move with the other three unions” — “and already, our agreement has a lot of work rules changes in which theirs really didn’t.” He added that “it’s a bigger hill for us to climb.”
A potential strike right before the holiday season in the United States would be destructive to the economy of a nation that is already struggling under inflation and high costs of essential items. Price increases of gasoline, as well as a low supply of grocery items, could be expected if the groups do not come to an agreement. The strike could also effect shipping as FedEx and UPS both use the railways on some level, although the companies haven’t spoken about the situation at length.
“Fortunately, this year’s holiday gifts have already landed on store shelves. But an interruption to rail transportation does pose a significant challenge to getting items like perishable food products and e-commerce shipments delivered on time, and it will undoubtedly add to the inflationary pressures already hitting the U.S. economy,” Jess Dankert of the Retail Industry Leaders Association told the Associated Press.
A railway strike “would effectively bring hundreds of America’s largest food, beverage, household and personal care manufacturing operations to a halt in a matter of days as inputs and ingredients run out. On-shelf availability and accessibility will quickly drop, compounded by almost inevitable panic buying,” Tom Madrecki of the Consumer Brands Association said.
A work stoppage at the railways could also impact traveling passengers since a lot of the passenger railroads run on freight railroad tracks. The railroads could also decide to stop sending certain dangerous materials and perishable food items in advance if no agreement is reached close to the cutoff time.