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Biden creates emergency panel to stave off rail worker strike

President signs executive order to establish board to work through contract dispute

President Joe Biden has established an emergency board to oversee the contract dispute. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order to establish an emergency board to handle an ongoing dispute between freight railroads and their unions over a new labor contract.

The board’s formation averts a potential strike by union members on Monday. 

The railroads and their unions have been embroiled in a contract dispute since January 2020, with wages and health care benefits being major sticking points. The National Mediation Board (NMB), an independent federal agency that mediates labor agreements for the railway and airline industries, stepped in earlier this year to mediate, but negotiations are still at an impasse. As a result, NMB released the railroads and unions from mediation and a 30-day cooling-off period began in June.

All these steps in the negotiation process, including conditions under which a union may elect to strike, are outlined under the Railway Labor Act.

“I have been notified by the National Mediation Board that in its judgment these disputes threaten substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree that would deprive a section of the country of essential transportation service,” the executive order from Biden read.

The order establishes a three-member board that will consist of impartial presidential appointees. The board will report to Biden within the next 30 days its findings on the issues surrounding the negotiations. The report’s recommendations could serve as a foundation for a voluntary agreement.

The board’s creation should provide relief to shippers and retailers concerned that a work stoppage could result in significant disruptions to the supply chain. 

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen earlier this week said its members agreed that going on strike would be an option if Biden didn’t establish the emergency board. SMART-TD also expressed similar sentiments.

The deadlock comes as the broader freight rail industry is grappling with a number of issues that could affect rail employees, including whether one-person train crews should be permitted and how automation might affect duties down the road. Health care is another area of disagreement between the unions and the railroads.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents the interests of the U.S. Class I railroad operations at the bargaining table, has said their proposals offer competitive employee benefits and compensation at levels higher than most U.S. industries.

The Coordinated Bargaining Coalition, which consists of the unions, has said the railroads have not been bargaining “in good faith,” which has led to a “dead end” with negotiations.

In response to Friday’s order, Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies said: “We are pleased that President Biden has taken an important step by creating a [presidential emergency board] to help all parties find a reasonable path forward. An agreement that allows both our hardworking employees and the industry to thrive into the future remains possible.”

Said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO: “We commend President Biden for announcing a board of neutral arbitrators to investigate and report its findings and recommendations to help both parties work toward a resolution. After nearly three years of bad faith negotiations by the railroads, it is sad but not surprising that we arrived at this point in the bargaining process governed by the Railway Labor Act.”

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  1. Carl Yee

    Impartial appointees only from this Resident? He has screwed up anything he touches, mostly thru bad appointments and policies.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.