Congress could intervene to stop railroad strike

December 1, 2011 - 4:32 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A costly railroad strike is looming just in time to scare Christmas-season retailers unless the nation's freight railroads and labor unions resolve their differences by Tuesday. Congress could intervene as early as Friday to avert a shutdown.

House lawmakers said Thursday they hope the parties will agree to extend the negotiation period for another 60 days. If not, House GOP leaders intend to bring up for a vote Friday a bill to block a strike, said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure rail subcommittee.

The bill would impose the settlement recommendations of a five-member Presidential Emergency Board that would bind the parties for the next three years. It is not clear whether Democratic leaders in the Senate — generally more sympathetic to unions — would go along with that, or seek another option such as extending the talks.

A strike of any length could cause massive disruption to the economy. Retailers say a rail strike would cost businesses and consumers $2 billion a day and prove especially damaging during the industry's most important shopping season of the year.

It would not only affect the delivery of goods but could also impact thousands of commuters if passenger trains are unable to travel on freight tracks.

"A strike during the busy holiday shopping season could be devastating," Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a letter to Congress.

The last time a railroad strike occurred, in 1991, Congress quickly passed legislation that ended it within a day. A 1982 strike lasted four days.

President Barack Obama appointed the special board in October to mediate the dispute between more than 30 railroads and 13 unions. The White House action averted a strike for at least 60 days until a "cooling off" period ends Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.

The railroads, including Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, have reached agreements on wages and benefits with 10 of the 13 unions covering about 60 percent of the 132,000 workers bargaining.

The remaining three are the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the American Train Dispatchers Association, representing about 60,000 workers.

Roland Wilder, attorney for both the engineers and maintenance unions, said he was hopeful a deal could be reached before the deadline, or that an extension could be worked out.

But even a strike by just three unions would cripple railroad commerce.

"In the railroad industry, all organizations honor the picket lines of other unions," Wilder said.

One of the thorniest issues, Wilder said, is a request by some unions for higher reimbursement for lodging and meal expenses for rail employees who are almost constantly working away from home.

The Republican leaders of the House — Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy — vowed earlier this week to vote on legislation that would prevent a strike if the parties fail to reach an agreement by the deadline.

"We are following with concern the situation involving our nation's railways, and we are troubled by the possibility of a national railway strike that would jeopardize American jobs and cost our nation's economy an estimated $2 billion per day," the lawmakers said in a statement.

Joanna Moorhead, spokeswoman for the National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the railroads in bargaining talks, said railroads are not eager to extend negotiations beyond the deadline.

"What we're focusing on now is not a postponement, but getting an agreement," Moorhead said.

Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, warned in a letter to Obama on Thursday that a railroad strike would force retailers to shift the delivery of goods to trucks, increasing costs, delivery time and congestion on roadways.

"This means that the Christmas shopping season could be severely affected as products destined for stores sit idle at ports or in traffic," Kennedy said.

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Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.