Reported by John Gallagher for Freightwaves.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling on President Joe Biden to help resolve a dispute between the country’s Class 1 railroads and 12 rail unions to avert a possible rail strike beginning July 18.
In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, U.S. Chamber President Suzanne Clark warned that the decision last month by the National Mediation Board (NMB) to release the railroads and unions from mediation and begin a 30-day cooling off period “presents a new challenge to the U.S. business community, which is already navigating a difficult environment.”
Unless the administration acts, either party is free to exercise “self-help” options — including a strike beginning at 12:01 a.m. on July 18, when the 30-day cooling-off period ends.
“I urge you to help resolve the ongoing labor negotiations … by following historic precedent and appointing a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) comprised of individuals who are impartial, belong to the National Academy of Arbitrators, and have direct experience in resolving rail disputes,” Clark wrote. “It is imperative that the Administration act to prevent any disruption to America’s rail service.”
The letter was copied to Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
The railroads and their unions have been embroiled in disagreements over a contract since January 2020, with wages and health care benefits being major sticking points. The NMB, an independent federal agency that mediates labor agreements for the railway and airline industries, stepped in earlier this year to mediate.
But with the NMB unable to make sufficient headway in the negotiations, major businesses represented by the U.S. Chamber are getting nervous, particularly given ongoing supply chain disruptions still being felt as a result of the pandemic.
“And we are now facing uncertainty over the possibility of further disruptions during preparations for the holiday shopping season,” Clark stated. “Any breakdown would be disastrous for U.S. consumers and the economy, and potentially return us to the historic supply chain challenges during the depths of the pandemic.”
The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the railroads in collective bargaining, said it expects a PEB to be appointed before the end of the cooling-off period as has been the case in prior contract stalemates. A PEB would then have 30 days to conduct hearings and issue a report during which time work stoppages are prohibited and for another 30 days following the issuance of the report, NCCC pointed out.
“In the past, PEB recommendations have served as the basis for voluntary agreements, but in some cases Congress has had to intervene.”
Speaking on behalf of labor, Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, said the unions want experienced arbitrators who also understand railroad economics appointed to the PEB.
“The reality is railroad executives continue to make record profits off the backs of rail workers after shrinking the total workforce by 30 percent since 2015,” Regan said. “We trust the Biden administration will appoint qualified arbitrators who meet these standards.”
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