The four largest U.S. railroads began limiting service Monday in preparation for a potential strike that stands to bring freight rail movement across the country to a halt.
Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF and CSX all announced they will issue embargoes on certain shipments beginning early this week. Railroads have until Friday to reach an agreement with three unions including the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division (SMART-TD); the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET); and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.
Norfolk Southern will close all gates to intermodal traffic on Tuesday starting at 12 p.m, according to a contingency plan released Friday. The railroad also said in a separate service update it would embargo all automotive traffic beginning Wednesday.
CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific all halted traffic of hazardous materials on Monday due to the threat of “spontaneous labor action,” according to the Association of American Railroads’ list of active embargoes.
Norfolk Southern and CSX said the embargoes were necessary to ensure that critical or even toxic freight is not left abandoned.
“We must ensure that hazardous and other security-sensitive freight is properly secured so it is not left stranded in the event of a sudden strike,” Norfolk Southern said in a service update. The railroad noted it would resume full operations if a labor agreement is reached.
SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET President Dennis Pierce said in a joint statement that railroads’ embargoes constitute an “unnecessary attack on rail shippers.”
“The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our Unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them,” they said.
Rail carriers have struck agreements with 10 of 12 unions, announcing new contracts on Sunday with groups representing boilermakers and maintenance employees.
SMART-TD and BLET continue to negotiate with rail carriers, which are represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee. An emergency labor dispute board appointed by President Joe Biden issued baseline recommendations last month to facilitate an agreement, and a federally mandated cooling off period is set to expire after midnight on Friday.
“The carriers are in active discussions with the remaining unions about finalizing agreements based on the [presidential emergency board]’s recommendation,” the NCCC said in a statement Sunday. “However, the two operating craft unions, BLET and SMART-TD, continue to maintain positions that were expressly rejected by the PEB.”
Shippers have called on Congress to intervene in case railroads are unable to reach an agreement before the deadline. The Consumer Brands Association wrote in a letter to Biden on Friday supporting congressional action to finalize negotiations, saying that a strike would “imperil the availability, affordability and accessibility of everyday essential products.”
“With product availability, inflation and cost challenges continuing to affect American consumers, the supply chains cannot afford another crisis in the form of a freight rail strike,” the group wrote.
A nationwide rail strike could lead to $2 billion in lost economic output per day, according to a report from the AAR.
SMART-TD and BLET said in their statement that Congress should “stay out of the rail dispute,” arguing that railroads are issuing embargoes in an attempt to provoke congressional action.
“Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism,” they said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of unions that had yet to reach a labor agreement with carriers.