Railroad and union officials were summoned to Washington for days of debate



CNN

Railroad and union officials will travel to Washington on Wednesday to meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as the Biden administration tries to avert a freight train strike that could cause major supply chain disruptions and impact the economy.

The two main unions in conflict with the railroads – the Guild of Locomotive and Train Engineers and the SMART Transportation Division – are expected to send their union leaders to the meeting with Walsh.

The meeting is just a few days away before the federally mandated cooling-off period ends and the strike begins. It serves as an important test for President Joe Biden and his White House, which has positioned itself as one of the most pro-labor administrations in decades, but is seeking to avoid potential shocks to the economy ahead of midterm elections a few months away.

About 60,000 unions working for the railways will go on strike at midnight on Friday. These members include the engineers and conductors who make up two-person work teams on each train. Another 45,000 workers belong to unions that have reached tentative agreements with the railroads, but a strike by engineers and conductors would bring the freight rail system to a standstill.

Such a shutdown could have major implications for the supply chain as well as the nation’s passenger rail system. About 30% of the nation’s freight moves by rail, and gas, food, consumer goods, and cars and trucks could become more expensive or scarcer if freight trains shut down. Amtrak has warned of major impacts to its service, which runs on tracks owned by freight rail companies. Service has already been suspended on major long-haul routes across the country in anticipation of a possible strike.

Officials are increasingly worried about the shutdown, and the White House is discussing contingency plans as labor talks remain at a standstill and agencies across the federal government work through options to keep critical supply chains operating.

Biden personally called railroad unions and companies when he visited Boston earlier this week in an effort to prevent a strike, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Biden continues to receive updates on the high-stakes negotiations.

A White House official told CNN that the Biden administration is working with shippers, truckers and air carriers to see how these other modes of transportation can keep goods going if there is a rail shutdown. One of the most important concerns is how to transport hazardous materials.

An official said meetings were being held daily with the departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the Energy and Federal Emergency Management Agency.