Potential Freight Rail Strike Threatens U.S. Economy

A potential nationwide freight rail strike is looming, threatening to cripple the U.S. economy ahead of the holiday shopping season. Roughly 115,000 rail workers could walk off the job as soon as September 16 if they cannot agree to a new contract with railroads.

Five of the 13 unions representing rail workers have reached tentative agreements with railroads to enact the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) recommendations, which call for 24 percent pay raises, back pay and cash bonuses.

But the bulk of railroad workers belong to unions that haven’t yet agreed to a deal. It’s also unclear whether workers would vote to ratify PEB recommendations that don’t address their concerns about punishing hours and rigid schedules that make it difficult to take time off for any reason.

“I would suspect that most railroad workers would love to strike, would love to get back at their employers after years of abuse while they watched the industry make record profits,” said Ron Kaminkow, an organizer at Railroad Workers United, which represents rank-and-file railroaders.

Federal law gives Congress the power to block or delay a railroad strike. If workers were to walk out, lawmakers could vote to enact the PEB deal or appoint arbitrators to fast-track a new contract, among a range of other options.

The Association of American Railroads, which estimates that a national rail shutdown would cost the U.S. at least $2 billion a day, said that lawmakers should vote to implement the PEB recommendations in the event of a strike to “instantly reward employees and reduce economic uncertainty.”

Experts say that an extended walkout would devastate industries that rely on freight to transport grain, coal, diesel, steel and motor vehicle parts. Shipping containers would pile up at ports, severely congesting supply chains and sending prices soaring ahead of the holidays.