US under threat of highly disruptive rail freight strike

The American executive was still struggling on Wednesday to try to avoid a major strike by freight railway workers in the United States, which risks seriously disrupting the transport of goods in the country but also the movement of many passengers, two months from crucial elections.

The companies concerned and the two unions mainly representing train drivers were called to a meeting at the Ministry of Labor on Wednesday morning. They had already been contacted several times by US President Joe Biden, or his representatives.

The leaders of ten other unions in the sector have reached an agreement with the companies in recent days. But one of them, IAM District 19, announced on Wednesday that its 4,900 members had voted against.

“All parties must stay at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on Wednesday.

“A shutdown of our freight rail system would be unacceptable to our economy, the American people and all parties must work to avoid this,” she added.

This strike could weaken Joe Biden a few weeks before the midterm legislative elections, the president regularly expressing his support for the unions but also having to avoid an economic crisis at a time when Americans are already facing very high inflation.

The federation representing the bosses of the sector has warned that if the strike does indeed begin Friday at midnight, it would stop 7,000 trains and could cost two billion dollars a day.

Freight companies began making arrangements for the transport of hazardous materials on Monday, while rail company Amtrak canceled passenger trains on three main lines on Tuesday.

Other local passenger transport organizations have warned, such as Virginia Railway Express, which connects cities in northern Virginia to the federal capital Washington, that they will have to suspend lines when the strike begins.

Negotiations are not so much about salaries as about provisions around vacation days and sick leave, with employees complaining that they sometimes have to work for long periods due to a lack of sufficient staff.

Joe Biden had already named and dedicated a panel to this cause in July to facilitate discussions and push back the possibility of a strike.

The parties can now decide on their own to continue negotiations. Congress can also act by blocking the strike or by imposing the recommendations made by the panel.

IAM District 19, the union that rejected the agreement on Wednesday, said in a statement that it had agreed to resume discussions until September 29.

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