White House intervenes in rail dispute, but Metra's on alert for possible strike

  • Metra passengers board an Aurora-bound BNSF train at Union Station in Chicago.

    Metra passengers board an Aurora-bound BNSF train at Union Station in Chicago. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 11/29/2022 6:59 AM

With a deadline looming next week for a possible strike by railway workers, Metra officials are watching negotiations between both sides and now a third party -- the White House.

Four out of 12 unions have balked at contract agreements with the major freight railroads, but on Monday the Biden Administration moved in to prevent a walkout.

 

"I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators -- without any modifications or delay -- to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown," President Joe Biden said in a statement.

It's the second time this fall a rail strike has threatened the delivery of essential goods and transport of passengers.

On Sept. 14, Metra warned riders that trains on its busy BNSF and Union Pacific lines might not run Sept. 15 because of a pending walkout. The labor action was averted after the Biden administration intervened, resulting in a cooling-off period.

But on Dec. 9, "the cooling-off period ends for several of the unions," Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski said Monday before Biden's announcement. "If they chose to strike then -- they've been through the process -- they could strike."

That would affect all major freight carriers including the BNSF, Union Pacific and Canadian National railroads, which have operating agreements with Metra.

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Democrat Biden touted his pro-union credentials but said that "without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down."

"Congress has the power to adopt the agreement and prevent a shutdown. It should set aside politics and partisan division and deliver for the American people. Congress should get this bill to my desk well in advance of Dec. 9 so we can avoid disruption," he said.

While in Westmont, where Derwinski and Pace officials were meeting with Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten to discuss transit improvements, Derwinski said the agency would keep riders apprised of any potential problems.

"What we can control is the messaging," he said.

Among the unions voting against a contract agreement was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which includes workers who build and repairs tracks.

Leaders of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees said one sticking point was a lack of paid sick leave. "This is very concerning, given the already perilous state of the railroad industry and its exhausted workforce," officials said in a statement.

Representing the railroads, the National Carriers' Conference Committee said unions received an offer that includes "the largest wage increases in nearly five decades" and will maintain employees' "platinum-level health care coverage."

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