Unions and railroad officials head to DC as White House urgently discusses contingency plans amid threat of rail shutdown

Unions and railroad officials head to DC as White House urgently discusses contingency plans amid threat of rail shutdown

While the sources pointed out that the situation remains fluid, the two main unions that have lingering differences with the railways – the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Officers and the SMART Transportation Division – are expected to send their union leaders to the meeting. .

“Continuing the Administration’s sustained commitment and concrete efforts to encourage the parties to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, tomorrow morning Secretary Walsh will host the railroads and labor unions in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Labor,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Wednesday’s meeting puts Walsh at the center of the high-stakes effort to avert what would be a debilitating strike that could deal a major blow to the economy.

CNN reported earlier Tuesday that the White House is urgently discussing contingency plans as the threat of a rail closure looms, with federal government agencies working on how they could potentially use the authority federal government to keep critical supply chains operational as labor negotiations continue to sit at an impasse.

Work has intensified in recent days, with officials growing concerned about a labor strike if rail freight negotiations fail to reach an agreement by Friday’s deadline. And President Joe Biden personally called unions and railroad companies on Monday during a visit to Boston to try to avoid a railroad closure, White House press secretary Karine Jean told reporters. -Rock.

While officials have been closely monitoring developments – and have been directly involved in an effort to find a solution – for several weeks, accelerated efforts to plan for the worst case underline the stakes of an outcome that would lead to a chain of massive supply disruptions and dual political and economic risk.

“The White House is working with other modes of transportation (including shippers, truckers, air freight) to see how they can respond and keep goods moving, in the event of a rail shutdown,” it said Tuesday. a White House official told CNN.

The official added that the administration “has also worked with relevant agencies to assess which supply chains and products are most likely to face severe disruptions, and emergency authorities available to keep goods safe.” movement”.

Why unions are having a moment right now

About 60,000 union members who work for the railroad are set to go on strike, including engineers and conductors who make up the two-person crews on each train. Even though another 45,000 union members belong to unions that have reached tentative agreements with the railways, a strike by engineers and conductors would put the rail freight system, which carries almost 30% of the national freight, at risk. a sudden stop.

Stakeholders are already warning the situation is dire, with the US Chamber of Commerce detailing some of the pressing issues in a letter to congressional leaders on Monday.

“A shutdown of the nation’s railroad service would have enormous national consequences,” executive vice president and chief policy officer for the chamber, Neil L. Bradley, said in the letter.

He continued: “It would lead to the spoilage of perishable foods such as dairy products, fruits and vegetables at their point of origin, interrupt Amtrak service for approximately 12.2 million daily passengers in 46 states, disrupt the delivery of materials and goods to factories and ports, and impede the transportation of heating oil and other important fuels and chemicals.These are just a few examples of the damage caused by a rail stoppage.

Biden continues to receive regular updates on the high-stakes negotiations, including briefings on the issue Monday evening and Tuesday morning.

High-level engagements were due to continue on Tuesday. There are conversations with industry leaders and also “multiple interagency meetings” happening daily with the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Energy, as well as with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the official said, with efforts to “identify the sectors and commodities that will be most immediately and significantly impacted by a rail shutdown.”

One of the main areas of concern relates to hazardous materials transported by rail.

“We pay particular attention to hazardous materials transported by rail, to protect the safety of workers and communities and to support the continued distribution of vital hazardous materials that depend on rail transportation, such as chlorine for water treatment plants. ‘water,” the official said, adding that “all the tools are on the table and will be deployed as needed.”

While concern over a strike has escalated in the White House in recent days, the administration remains hopeful the matter will be resolved. The president does not have the power to end a strike, but Congress can still act to prevent a work stoppage.

“We hope that this planning and preparation will prove futile and that the negotiating parties will agree to a resolution and not allow American workers, families and businesses to be harmed by a rail stoppage. We have been clear in all our communications with the negotiating parties that a shutdown is unacceptable and will harm American workers, families and businesses, and they must take action to avoid it,” the official said.

This story and title were updated with additional details on Tuesday.

CNN’s Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.

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