If I were you, I’d go out and grab a few packages of toilet paper before Friday.
At the end of August, I wrote about a poll taken by thousands of rail workers that indicated their overwhelming willingness to strike on Sept. 16, which marks the end of a “cooling-off period” set forth by an executive order signed by President Joe Biden aimed at keeping the railroads up and running.
Two weeks ago, my piece on the potential strike was one of few on the internet warning of the potential widespread economic disaster awaiting Americans should the railroads — especially freight lines — shut down for any length of time.
I noted at the time:
To be clear, a railroad worker strike would be an unmitigated disaster for America, and it would probably make the early pandemic supply chain issues, which were certainly bad, look like no big deal.
Finally, roughly 48 hours ahead of a possible strike guaranteed to cripple the U.S. economy, the issue gained the attention it deserves. A quick scroll through social media this morning — and this is purely anecdotal — gave me the gut feeling that a strike is imminent. Workers are clearly ticked-off and claim to have been mistreated for far too long, demanding nothing less than total satisfaction and markedly improved working environments.
Here’s one railroad worker who received a lot of attention over his post, in which he made clear that he believes union rail workers — over 110,000 of them — should strike and send a message.
It would be the first major railroad strike since the 1990s. Railroad strikes have such a profoundly negative impact on the nation that they usually require Congress to intervene quickly with legislation to halt them. In past instances of railroad strikes, Congress has managed to pass legislation and have it signed by the president in less than 48 hours to end railroad strikes.
There’s absolutely no doubt that the Biden administration and congressional leaders, at this very moment, are in a last-minute huddle to prepare a response to a possible strike. But it’s quite the political predicament given that we’re eight weeks out from a major midterm election. Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress could soon be in a position to force hundreds of thousands of angry union workers — a massive voting bloc — to return to work in less-than-desirable conditions.
According to Fox Business, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has been deeply involved in talks with the railroad carriers and unions. President Biden himself has also reportedly taken on the issue personally, for what it’s worth. The Labor Department recently issued a statement on the rapidly developing situation.
“The parties continue to negotiate, and last night Secretary Walsh again engaged to push the parties to reach a resolution that averts any shutdown of our rail system. This followed on dozens of calls from the president’s cabinet and top administration officials, and months of administration efforts. All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and come to an agreement,” a Labor Department spokesperson said.
In July, President Biden signed an executive order to form a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to negotiate an agreement between railroad unions and the carriers. A poll conducted in August among members of Railroad Workers United (RWU) revealed that a vast majority of railroad workers rejected the Biden administration’s attempt to intervene.
The RWU survey, as The Hill noted, revealed that railroaders — a vast majority at 96% — are still unsatisfied with the terms of the PEB, and are ready to walk out on Sept. 15 — the date when the PEB-established “cooling off period” ends. RWU indicated on its website that it received just over 3,100 responses as of late August.
National Review noted Wednesday morning that in many ways, the railroad strike, which would cripple the U.S. economy even further, has already begun, as several carriers are halting certain modes of transport and shutting down passenger lines in what appears to be the anticipation of a strike.
The American Association of Railroads said that this week they’ve begun taking steps to secure the shipments of hazardous and security-sensitive materials, such as chlorine used to purify drinking water and chemicals used in fertilizer, and warned that, “other freight customers may also start to experience delayed or suspended service over the course of [this] week, as the railroads prepare for the possibility that current labor negotiations do not result in a resolution and are required to safely and securely reduce operations.”
The NR piece added that Norfolk Southern and BSNF, two major rail carriers, have already initiated shutdown procedures for intermodal traffic as both companies prepare for strike conditions.
Adding more speculative fuel to the fire was Amtrak’s latest response, as the passenger line has already canceled some of its long-distance passenger routes. It made the decision to cancel the routes to avoid leaving passengers stranded on the tracks should the strike commence sometime early Friday morning.
The economic pain from a railroad strike would be tremendous, with the industry reporting that such a strike will result in empty store shelves and billions of lost dollars in economic output — not to mention the unintended consequences for the numerous industries that depend on railroad transportation.
The Association of American Railroads estimates that a nationwide shutdown of rail operations could cost $2 billion in lost economic output each day, according to a report released Thursday. AAR reached its conclusions by updating data from a 1992 Federal Railroad Administration econometric study.
AAR, which represents freight and passenger railroads, also said a short-term switch to trucks or barges “would be costly and disruptive,” with an additional 467,000 long-haul trucks needed per day to handle the freight that would have otherwise gone on rail.
Hopefully, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has some notes about the situation in her binder, because something tells me she’s gonna have more than a couple of questions from the press on the matter in the coming days.