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What happens if Congress blocks the railroad strike?

Walkout by rank-and-file workers would be risky, according to rail expert

Rail workers could gamble on an illegal walkout if Congress succeeds in blocking a national strike early Friday morning through legislative action, according to a rail expert.

In the increasingly unlikely event that either the House or the Senate produces a settlement package that the remaining holdout unions will agree to, a walkout by frustrated rank-and-file workers could still occur.

“If Congress passes legislation it would immediately go to Joe Biden for his signature, and the minute he signs it, the unions would be obligated to end the impasse,” John Brennan III, a former senior counsel for Union Pacific Railroad, told FreightWaves.

“But labor has walked out in the past” despite such agreements, he said. “The thing is, if they try that, the railroads can march into court and get an injunction from a federal judge ordering the union to go back. And if they defy that order, the unions could be hit with hefty fines.”

What would be the incentive then, for labor to defy such an agreement in the first place?

“There’s a lot of pent-up frustration out there, particularly with regard to working conditions, and this would be a way of blowing off steam and flexing their muscles.”

But options for a legislative settlement are dwindling. On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blocked a resolution introduced on Monday by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., that would have codified the Presidential Emergency Board recommendations issued in August.



“What Congress should be doing is not passing the Burr-Wicker resolution and forcing railroad workers back to work under horrendous working conditions,” Sanders said in response to the Republicans’ attempt to pass the bill through unanimous consent. “What we should be doing is telling the CEOs in the rail industry, ‘Treat your workers with dignity and respect, not contempt.’”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could still bring the Republican bill to the floor for a vote — but that is highly unlikely given the political ramifications.

The Democrat-controlled House has yet to offer a legislative settlement, which could build off the Burr-Wicker resolution and include incentives to appease the remaining union holdouts.

Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said Congress could still pass a bill extending the cooling-off period. “Doing so would more likely come from the Democrats, because they don’t want to be seen as anti-union but also don’t want this to have a national supply chain breakdown right before the midterm elections,” Davis told FreightWaves.

“Or they could also reach a deal through the guiding hand of [Labor Secretary] Marty Walsh, and avoid resorting to a legislative settlement altogether. But they could also end up going on strike at 12:01a.m. on Friday, or the railroads could lock them out — whichever side wants to go first.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.