STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The pandemic caused many supply chain bottlenecks, and then just as things seemed to be getting better, freight railroad workers are talking about striking.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Yeah, workers could strike as early as midnight Friday morning, and if they do, the action could bring on the type of supply chain disruption unseen in the U.S. for a generation.
INSKEEP: Frank Morris of our member station KCUR in Kansas City is covering the story. Frank, hey there.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Some things are already shutting down. Even though the strike has not begun yet, what are some of the early preparations?
MORRIS: That's right, Steve. You know, some of the weird knock-on effects is that passenger rail service Amtrak has shut down most of its cross-country service. Amtrak employees aren't going to strike, but outside of the Northeast corridor - that busy rail corridor between Boston and Washington - Amtrak trains run on tracks owned and operated by the big freight railroads. If freight railroad workers go on strike, those tracks will be closed to passenger service. So Amtrak is pausing the long routes now to keep from stranding passengers later if there's a strike. Lots of shipments are starting to taper already - hazardous chemicals especially, new cars, intermodal service. Some grain shipments could stop today.
INSKEEP: Yeah, I guess you wouldn't want hazardous chemicals sitting out in the middle of nowhere for an undetermined amount of time. But...
MORRIS: No, or anything valuable.
INSKEEP: Yeah. How else are companies preparing?
MORRIS: I mean, this is not going to be an easy thing to gulp down. Trains carry about 28% of the stuff moving around the country on any given day. So you stop that, and suddenly, power plants stop getting deliveries of coal to generate electricity. Trains full of imported goods aren't making it inland from the coasts. Factories aren't getting parts, raw materials and packaging. That said, Lee Sanders with the American Bakers Association says that after the pandemic-related shortages and supply chain problems over the last 2 1/2 years, U.S. companies have learned to keep more supplies on hand.
LEE SANDERS: So instead of having just in time, now you have to really prepare for just in case. And this is another just-in-case situation.
INSKEEP: OK, so some companies may be ready if there's a disruption of days or weeks or who knows how long. But why is it that railroad workers would be talking of a strike now?
MORRIS: The impasse, Steve, is primarily over work rules that govern locomotive engineers and conductors, the two-person crews that operate every cross-country freight train. Conductors and engineers feel like they've been jacked around for years. Railroad companies can keep them on call for weeks on end. Michael Lindsey is an engineer for Union Pacific, and he says that working for the railroad, it's impossible to have a life.
MICHAEL LINDSEY: You can't even make a dentist appointment. You don't know when you're going to be working. And then when you're gone, you're gone 36 to 48 hours at a time.
INSKEEP: Wow. So they're struggling with the same work-life balance as many Americans, except this is an extreme, extreme example.
INSKEEP: Are the railroads offering to make any changes?
MORRIS: So, Steve, the offer on the table was developed by a board appointed by President Joe Biden, and it does include a big pay hike - 24%. Most of the unions representing rail workers have tentatively signed off on that deal. But it doesn't address work rules. So conductors and engineers are saying no. If they strike, the other unions would support them. And the president of the two unions have been summoned to the Labor Department today to meet with Secretary Marty Walsh. Biden's talking about using emergency powers to keep certain essential goods moving in the event of a strike and working with other types of shippers - trucking, shipping and air freight - to find workarounds. He personally called the unions and railroads Monday.
Congress could - and probably would - force railroad employees back to work. Lawmakers have to agree on the new terms of the contract. And the easiest thing to do would be for them to adopt the recommendations from Biden's committee, which would not please locomotive engineers and conductors.
INSKEEP: Frank Morris. Thanks so much.
MORRIS: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.