Unions, rail officials head to DC as White House discusses emergency plans amid rail shutdown threat

Although sources insist the situation remains fluid, the two main unions with ongoing disputes with the railways — the Guild of Locomotives and Trains and the SMART Transport Division — are expected to send their union leaders to the meeting.

“Continuing with the administration’s sustained commitment and practical efforts to encourage the parties to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, tomorrow morning Secretary Walsh will host the railroad companies and unions in Washington, DC at the Department of Labor,” the spokesman said. a statement

Wednesday’s meeting puts Walsh at the center of a high-stakes effort to avert what would have been 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 rail shutdowns looms as agencies across the federal government work on how to use federal power to keep critical supply chains operating as labor talks continue. at an impasse

Work has intensified in recent days as officials grow concerned about a possible strike if freight rail labor negotiations fail to reach an agreement by Friday’s deadline. And President Joe Biden personally called railroad unions and businesses on Monday while visiting Boston in an effort to avoid a train shutdown, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

Although officials have been watching developments closely — and directly involved in efforts to find a solution — for several weeks, the accelerated efforts to plan for a worst-case scenario underscore the stakes of an outcome that would involve a massive supply chain disruption. interruptions, and a double political and economic risk.

“The White House is working with other modes of transportation (including carriers, truckers, air freight) to see how they can get goods in and keep moving if the rail is shut down,” a White House official told CNN on Tuesday.

The official added that the administration “has also been working with relevant agencies to assess the emergency authorities available to deal with severe disruptions to supply chains and products and to keep goods moving.”

About 60,000 unions working for the railway will go on strike, including engineers and conductors who make up two-man crews on each train. Even if the other 45,000 union members belong to unions that have reached tentative agreements with the railroads, a strike by engineers and conductors would bring the freight rail system, which carries nearly 30 percent of the nation’s freight, to a standstill.

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

“Closing the nation’s rail service would have dire national consequences,” chamber vice president and chief policy officer Neil L. Bradley said in the letter.

He continued, “It would cause perishable foods such as dairy products, fruits and vegetables to spoil at the point of origin, halt Amtrak service for 12.2 million daily passengers in 46 states, disrupt shipments of materials and goods to factories and ports, and disrupt heating fuel and It would prevent the transportation of other important fuels and chemicals. These are just a few examples of the damage of the rail shutdown.”

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

The high-profile engagements were expected to continue on Tuesday. Conversations with industry leaders and “multiple interagency meetings” are also taking place daily with the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Energy, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the official said, in an effort. to identify the sectors and commodities that will be immediately and significantly affected by a train stoppage.’

One of the most important concerns is hazardous materials transported by rail.

“We are paying special attention to hazardous materials transported by rail to protect the safety of workers and communities and to help ensure the continued distribution of essential hazardous materials that depend on rail transportation, such as chlorine for water treatment plants,” the official said. he added, “all the tools are on the table and will be deployed as appropriate”.

While concerns about a strike at the White House have grown in recent days, the administration remains hopeful that the matter will be resolved. The president does not have the power to call a strike, but Congress can still act to prevent a work stoppage.

“We hope that this planning and preparation will be unnecessary and that the negotiating parties will agree to a solution and allow American workers, families and businesses not to be harmed by a train stoppage. We have been clear in all our communications with the negotiating parties that a shutdown is unacceptable and that workers, families and businesses it will harm them, and they must take measures to prevent it,” the official said.

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

CNN’s Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.