UPDATE: Since the publication of this report, the two largest unions that were still negotiating with railroads reached a tentative agreement early in the morning, avoiding a strike, according to the Association of American Railroads.The agreement includes a 24% wage include in a five-year period from 2020 to 2024.

It also includes an immediate payout on average of $11,000 once ratified. The proposal comes from the Presidential Emergency Board. Union members now have to vote to ratify the agreement.

Rail workers in Fort Worth and across the country could go on strike Friday if rail unions and companies don’t come to an agreement. Experts and trade associations warn rail disruptions would trigger more supply chain snarls and billions lost every day in the economy.

Unions say they will strike if an agreement isn’t made with rail companies such as BNSF and Union Pacific over pay and working conditions, when the “cooling period” wears off designated by the Railway Labor Act. 

In Fort Worth, about 500 BNSF employees would set up picket lines at the company’s national operation center, intermodal facility and railyards across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex starting on Friday, said Christopher Bond, the local union chairman in Fort Worth for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. Union Pacific union workers in Fort Worth will do something similar, Bond said.

Union workers will stop picketing if Congress orders them to, or if an agreement is reached, Bond said. 

“None of us wants to strike,” Bond said. “But we’re forced to strike because the railroads are not being reasonable.”

In an emailed statement to The Fort Worth Report, a BNSF spokesperson said the company will operate trains as long as trains can operate safely ahead of the Friday deadline.

“BNSF and the other railroads will continue to work with the remaining unions to reach voluntary agreements based on the (President Emergency Board’s) recommendations to avoid disruption to rail service,” the statement said. “We are committed to the collective bargaining process and have faith that should a labor strike occur, Congress will intervene to prevent or quickly resolve the service disruption.”

Unions are trying to negotiate more favorable terms for attendance policies, including sick leave and vacation time. Rail employees can receive up to five weeks vacation and up to 14 paid holidays or leave days, depending on craft and seniority, according to the National Railway Labor Conference, which represents national freight railroads. 

Bond argues railroad companies such as BNSF don’t let employees take the time off.

“Even if you have, you know, three weeks of vacation, they don’t allow you to actually take it,” Bond said. “They say they don’t have the manpower for it.”

Railroads have cut about 45,000 employees in the past six years to lower operating costs, according to a Surface Transportation Board meeting announcement in April.  

Most unions have reached tentative agreements based on the proposal President Joe Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board made. The proposal suggests 24% raises, $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal retroactive to 2020, according to reporting by The Associated Press. That deal also includes additional paid leave and a higher health insurance cost.

All 12 unions have to agree on the terms. Two unions still don’t: The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division. The two unions represent about 60,000 railroad workers across the country. 

Economic impact

By one estimate, strikes could cause a more $2 billion loss per day in the economy, according to a study by the Association of American Railroads. 

Consumers wouldn’t see the consequences of a rail strike immediately, said Roger Wehr, who teaches transportation economics at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

Typically there’s a six-month lag between what happens at the railroad and what consumers see, he said. Shipping goods such as fertilizer and coal is cheapest by splitting transport by rail and truck. One train can carry as much freight as several hundred trucks, according to a 2019 Association of American Railroads report.

“You eliminate the railroad from that, then all of a sudden, it becomes a lot more expensive,” Wehr said. 

Higher prices to ship goods would eventually result in higher prices for consumers, he said. Supply chain disruptions are already a driver of inflation across the country. That has steadily been resolving, Wehr said. If a strike happens, he predicts it would create more complications. 

The last major rail strike was in 1992. After two days, Congress intervened and blocked the strike.

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.

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Seth Bodine

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....