Unions blast rail move to delay shipments before deadline

·4 min read

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The heads of the nation's two largest rail unions said Sunday that the freight railroads' move to begin delaying some shipments ahead of this week's looming strike deadline is only an attempt to get shippers to increase the pressure on Congress to intervene and block a work stoppage by imposing a contract on workers.

The heads of the unions that represent engineers and conductors — the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union — issued a joint statement blasting the move, which the railroads announced late Friday. A strike or lockout won't be allowed until this coming Friday, but the railroads appear to be bracing for one by saying they would begin curtailing shipments of hazardous materials and other chemicals on Monday to ensure carloads of those dangerous products won't be stranded along the tracks if the trains stop moving.

“The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them. Our unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism,” said Jeremy Fergunson with SMART-TD and Dennis Pierce with the BLET union.

Those two unions have been demanding that CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and the other railroads go beyond the proposed deal recommended by a group of arbitrators President Joe Biden appointed. They want them to address concerns about strict attendance policies that they say make it hard to take any time off and increasing workloads after the railroads cut nearly one-third of their workforces in recent years.

The railroad trade group has said there’s no way trucks can pick up the slack if the railroads stop moving because roughly 467,000 additional trucks a day would be needed to handle all the cargo trains haul and there is already a shortage of truck drivers.

Five other unions have already reached tentative agreements based on the Presidential Emergency Board's recommendations that will deliver 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses over a five-year contract that's retroactive to 2020. But several key unions have been holding out in the hope that the railroads will also address some of their other concerns.

If the two sides can't agree on a deal by the end of the week, Congress is expected to step in to block a strike because of the dire economic consequences if a strike happens because so many businesses rely on railroads to deliver their raw materials and finished products. The Association of American Railroads trade group put out a report last week estimating that the economy would take a $2 billion a day hit if the trains stop moving and passenger traffic would be disrupted nationwide because Amtrak and many commuter railroads use tracks owned by the freight railroads.

The railroads said in a statement Friday that they needed to start delaying shipments of sensitive cargo to “ensure that no such cargo is left on an unattended or unsecured train in the event of a work stoppage due to an impasse in labor negotiations.” The railroads also said other shipments could be affected this week.

The railroad trade group didn't immediately respond to the unions' criticisms Sunday.

Already, a number of trade groups representing railroad shippers have urged lawmakers to be prepared to block a strike. A coalition of 31 agricultural groups sent a letter to Congress last week, and the Fertilizer Institute trade group joined the chorus of concerned shippers Saturday because shipments of ammonia and other fertilizers will be delayed.

“Supply chains are already strained and there is currently zero elasticity in rail transportation,” TFI President and CEO Corey Rosenbusch said. “This situation will get exponentially worse every day there is no resolution."

He said more than half of all fertilizer is hauled by railroads. More than 75% of all finished vehicles are taken from factories to dealerships by train, and countless other products move by rail.

The railroad trade group said that a single railcar can carry up to 2,000 UPS packages, or enough plastic pellets to make some two million two-liter bottles.

Josh Funk, The Associated Press