The administration of President Joe Biden has been preparing a contingency plan to ensure deliveries of critical goods by keeping other transportation lines functional should thousands of union rail workers go on strike following stalled labor negotiations, according to a White House official.
"The administration has also been working with relevant agencies to assess what supply chains and commodities are most likely to face severe disruptions," said the spokesperson.
Jean-Pierre said Biden, as well as several cabinet secretaries, made "hundreds of calls" and have met with railroad unions and railroad companies since early spring to prevent a strike.
Some 60,000 union members working for railroads, including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, could go on strike as early as Sept. 16 if their demands over pay and working conditions aren't met.
The potential shutdown could freeze almost 30 percent of U.S. cargo shipments, stoke inflation, impede supplies of food and fuel, cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion per day, and cause transportation woes.
Though an initial strike was planned for Sept. 16, the IAM said in its latest announcement that "out of respect for other unions in the ratification process," its membership has approved a strike no sooner than Sept. 29, to allow the union to continue to negotiate changes in the hopes of achieving an agreement.
Railroads have reached tentative agreements with most of their unions based on the PEB recommendations that called for 24 percent raises and $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal that’s retroactive to 2020. The PEB deal also includes one additional paid leave day a year and higher health insurance costs.
However, all railroad unions must agree to this deal to prevent a strike. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART Workers-Transportation Division—the two main unions that represent conductors and have disputed the agreement—want the railroads to address some of their concerns about unpredictable work schedules and strict attendance rules in addition to agreeing to the PEB's wage increases.
On Wednesday, railroad and union officials have been in an all-day meeting with Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in Washington..
"Secretary Walsh continues to lead discussions at the Department of Labor between the rail companies and unions," a DOL spokesperson said. "The parties are negotiating in good faith and have committed to staying at the table today."
Jean-Pierre stressed during the press briefing on Sept. 13 that a shutdown "would have a tremendous impact" on the U.S. supply chain.
"As you all know, it's going to have a ripple effects [sic] into our overall economy, on the American families," Jean-Pierre said. "A shutdown is not acceptable. That is not something that we want. It risks harming families. It risks farming—harming businesses and whole communities. And we have made that clear empathetically and repeatedly to both parties."
"So, we’re aware of the impact this might have, which is why, again, the president put together the PEB ... back in July to make sure that there was a negotiation framework, to make sure that we’re neutral arbiters that could help get to a solution here," the spokesperson added.
About 30 percent of U.S. freight moves by rail, and gas, food, consumer goods, and cars and trucks could all increase in price or become more scarce if freight trains are shutdown.