Business groups warn Biden of renewed rail strike threat
More than 300 business groups on Thursday warned that the U.S. is once again nearing a nationwide rail strike and urged President Biden to intervene in contract negotiations.
The message comes after workers at two railroad unions voted down tentative deals, raising the chances of a lockout. The vote has prompted fears that workers at the largest rail unions may reject an agreement partially brokered by the White House in September, setting the stage for national rail shutdown next month.
“Unfortunately, we have seen two unions reject the agreement and there are concerns that others may follow. If that were to be the case, we could witness a strike that would shut down the entire freight rail system,” business groups representing farmers, automakers, retailers and dozens of other industries wrote in a letter to Biden.
Even a short-lived rail shutdown would devastate the U.S. economy, which relies on freight railroads to carry around 30 percent of the nation’s cargo, including large quantities of food, fuel and chemicals that cannot be transported in other ways.
Six of the 12 main rail unions have ratified a contract based on recommendations from a White House-appointed board, but many workers say it doesn’t do enough to address their concerns about lacking sick time, dangerous working conditions and unpredictable hours.
The nation came within hours of a strike last month before the White House brokered a last-minute deal between the two largest rail unions and the freight railroads that provided unpaid sick leave. Democratic leaders in Congress have said that lawmakers would vote to prevent a strike if needed.
“Because the White House played such a central role in the process, we believe it can be helpful in continuing to move the process forward in a positive direction,” the business groups wrote. “Otherwise, Congress will be called upon to act.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, American Bakers Association, National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce signed on to Thursday’s letter, among other influential groups.
Companies that rely on rail to transport goods have become increasingly hostile toward the railroad industry, which reported massive profits this year despite persistent disruptions driven by a shortage of train conductors and engineers. Railroads laid off nearly 30 percent of their workforce in recent years, leaving them unprepared for an increase in demand.
“A fragile and volatile supply chain requires a strong rail network. Now is not the time to deny reasonable benefits for a labor community that has been decimated by losses in recent years,” Eric Byer, president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, wrote in an opinion piece this month.
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