A contract dispute between the nation's largest railroads and 115,000 of their workers is raising fears among farm groups of a strike that could idle more than 7,000 trains, potentially halting the movement of grain during the harvest season.
Several Class I freight railroads — including BNSF, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and Union Pacific — reached tentative agreements with 5 of 12 unions involved in national bargaining, but have struggled to garner agreement for the rest.
The parties are meeting with a emergency board President Biden created in July to arbitrate the dispute and have until Sept. 15 to reach a deal before a strike begins. Secretary Marty Walsh has also participated in some of these meetings, according to Politico.
The board's recommendation would increase wages by 24% from 2020 through 2024, with an immediate 14.1% increase for employees, according to the National Railway Labor Conference. The board also suggested $1,000 annual lump sum payments, adjustments to health care premiums, health benefit enhancements, and limited changes to work rules.
“BMWED remains committed to engage in discussions with the carriers and I am ever hopeful that a voluntary agreement will be reached," said Tony Cardwell, the president for one of the unions. "We are prepared to negotiate whenever, wherever."
The approaching deadline is worrying farm groups, who fear the parties won't be able to agree to a contract before fall harvest season. A coalition of thirty-one agricultural organizations sent a letter to the ranking members of the House and Senate Transportation committees Thursday, urging them to pass legislation halting a rail shutdown if an agreement is not reached by September 16.
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"Leaders around the world are already concerned about food shortages and famine due to drought and geopolitical challenges, such as the invasion of Ukraine, which accounts for ten percent of the global exports of wheat," the letter said. "A freight rail stoppage would occur as America’s farmers harvest their crops and would exacerbate global food insecurity and likely contribute to further geopolitical instability in regions that experience famine."
Congress has gotten involved with rail disputes in the past and does have some power over the matter, since it can pass laws that can make the groups resume negotiations or require railroads to meet some of the workers demands. But the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's ranking Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, told Agri-Pulse on Thursday that he didn't believe the dispute would reach that point.
"There are statutory ways and means to get people to an agreement in case of a rail dispute," Wicker said. "I don't think we're going to have a strike."
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