Officials are bracing for a possible nationwide rail strike at the end of this week. Railroads have already started curtailing shipments of some materials and announced plans to stop hauling refrigerated products ahead of a Friday deadline. Businesses that rely on railroads for raw materials and finished products have started planning for the worst.
A strike happens when workers stop working in order to compel an employer to meet demands for better pay, working conditions, or other requests. The Bible explains that “the laborer deserves his wages,” (Luke 10:7) yet sometimes strikes involve ruthless behavior or unreasonable demands. That is when great wisdom is needed to sort through what is right and what is dishonorable.
In the current situation, talks are continuing between the largest U.S. freight railroads—Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, and others—and their unions.
Meanwhile, Biden administration officials are scrambling to develop a plan to use trucks, ships, and planes to try to keep the most crucial chemicals and other goods moving if the railroads stop rolling. The White House is keeping the pressure on both sides to settle their differences.
A growing number of business groups are lobbying Congress to be prepared to intervene and block a strike if they can’t reach an agreement.
“We have made crystal clear to the interested parties the harm that American families, business and farmers and communities would experience if they were not to reach a resolution,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. She calls a shutdown “not acceptable.”
In addition to businesses that rely on trains to deliver goods, the strike could affect many passenger railroads that operate on tracks owned by a freight companies. Amtrak has already canceled several long-distance trains because there wouldn’t be enough time for them to reach their destinations before a strike or lockout on Friday.
Commuter rails would also be affected. In Chicago, the suburban railway operator Metra warned riders that it wouldn’t be able to run most of its trains if a strike does occur.
Some businesses could be affected more than others by a rail shutdown. For instance, nearly all ethanol and coal and most grain moves by rail.
The railroads have reached tentative agreements with most of their unions, including a ninth deal announced Tuesday. The deal includes pay raises, bonuses, an additional leave day, and better health insurance.
But all 12 railroad unions must agree to prevent a strike. The union that represents engineers and the union that represents conductors want the railroads to address some of their concerns about unpredictable work schedules and strict attendance rules in addition to agreeing to the recommended wage increases.
Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers United labor coalition, doesn’t think the unions are demanding much at this point—just the kind of things most U.S. workers already enjoy, such as the ability to take time off without penalty.
“We have attendance policies that . . . offer very, very little leeway for workers who need to take time off for doctor’s appointments, for time with family, to be rested,” Kaminkow says.
Starting Monday, all major railroads put a hold on shipments of hazardous materials to ensure those dangerous chemicals wouldn’t be stranded along the tracks if there’s a strike. Norfolk Southern told its customers that it will also stop accepting shipments of intermodal containers of goods starting Wednesday evening as it prepares “for a controlled shutdown of the network.”
(A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Montana. AP/Matthew Brown)