Could a railroad union shutdown affect Brookhaven lines? Local economic leader doubts it

Published 1:43 pm Monday, September 12, 2022

Brookhaven’s Chamber of Commerce director thinks a potential railroad union shutdown is unlikely to have negative affects on local rail lines.

The Biden administration has urged railroads and unions to reach a deal to avoid a railroad work stoppage. Monday the administration said it would pose “an unacceptable outcome” to the U.S. economy that could cost $2 billion a day.

Railroads — including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern — have until one minute after midnight Friday to reach tentative deals, with hold-out unions representing about 60,000 workers. Failing to reach an agreement opens the door to union strikes, employer lockouts and congressional intervention.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“The parties continue to negotiate, and last night (U.S. Labor) Secretary (Marty) Walsh again engaged to push the parties to reach a resolution that averts any shutdown of our rail system,” a Labor Department spokesperson said. “all parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and come to an agreement.”

U.S. railroads account for almost 30 percent of cargo transport by weight and maintain nearly 97 percent of the tracks Amtrak uses for commuter rail. Widespread railroad disruptions could choke supplies of food and fuel, spawn transportation chaos and stoke inflation.

As of Sunday, eight of 12 unions had reached tentative deals covering about half of 115,000 workers, according to the National Railway Labor Conference. Hold-outs include the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).

Canadian National Railroad Company owns and maintains the north-south railroad through Brookhaven. Affiliated Railroads owns and maintains Natchez Railway, the east-west railroad from Brookhaven to Natchez. Local CN and AR representatives could not be reached for comment via phone Monday.

But Garrick Combs, managing director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, said he does not expect the negotiations to negatively affect local transportation or commerce.

“I think it’s safe to say that no one wants a prolonged shutdown of any rail lines, so I doubt we’ll see it trickle down to us,” said Combs. “I have noticed that Canadian National has not been mentioned, so we’re unsure of what the domino effects might be down the line.”

Railroads said late last week they would halt shipments of hazardous materials — such as chlorine used to purify drinking water and chemicals used in fertilizer — on Monday so they are not stranded in unsafe locations in the event of a strike.

At midday Tuesday, Norfolk Southern will stop accepting goods that move by combination of ship, truck and rail. These include consumer goods and e-commerce packages accounting for almost half of U.S. rail traffic. That could exacerbate existing backups and seaports and hubs, causing cascading delays of bulk commodities, such as food, energy, automotive and construction products.

“We are tracking these negotiations with great interest because, while they center on the relationship between rail workers and the freight railroads, there is simply no way to disentangle the passenger and freight operations of this network,” said Jim Mathews, President of the Rail Passenger Association. “As the Association of American Railroads stated last week, freight railroads own ‘nearly 97 percent of the tracks on Amtrak’s nearly 22,000-mile system.’ If negotiations fail, America’s passenger trains will cease operations outside the Northeast Corridor.”

“We understand that, out of an abundance of caution, Amtrak has already started suspending service for certain long-distance trains with multi-day schedules in order not to strand passengers, workers, or equipment,” Matthews said. “While this situation is outside of Amtrak’s control, these passengers must be made whole, and they must receive relevant information in a timely fashion.”