Reported by Ian Kullgren and Rebecca Rainey for Bloomberg Law.
Ian Kullgren: Remember the rail strike that consumed the Biden administration’s attention last month? Well, it’s not over, and the threat of a nationwide disruption is still very real, according to Greg Regan, the AFL-CIO’s infrastructure czar.
Three unions so far have approved collective bargaining agreements with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, the group representing large freight carriers. Nine more unions need members to vote to ratify agreements to avert a strike entirely.
The high-stakes negotiations at the US Labor Department included representatives from a few large unions like the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents 37,000 workers. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, in true House of Cards fashion, brokered a deal after 20 straight hours of talks that kept Washington on pins and needles.
But it may not have been enough.
That’s because rail is a highly niched industry where each group of workers has its own union, Regan said in an interview. Size is important, but specialty can offer other types of leverage. For example, if the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen were to go on strike, there would be no one to install and repair the signal systems that direct trains.
“If one union does eventually go on strike, it would disrupt the functioning of the freight railway system,” Regan said.
And there’s the fact that both sides have a kind of collective defense mentality when it comes to labor disputes—an attack on one is an attack on all.
If one union were to go on strike, others would refuse to cross the picket line, and rail companies could respond in kind with a nationwide lockout. That’s what triggered the last rail shutdown in 1992, when the International Association of Machinists went on strike against CSX. It took less than an hour for the other freight companies to lock out their workers.
Luckily for Democrats, the union elections won’t wrap up until after the midterm elections, meaning it likely won’t be a campaign issue. (Regan says that was never a consideration from the unions’ perspective.)
Nevertheless, Biden could find himself with a supply chain crisis just in time for the holidays.