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Retailers Push Biden to Step in On Rail Labor Talks

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is working in overdrive as it presses the White House for intervention in railway labor negotiations less than a week after urging President Biden to step in on West Coast dockworker contract talks.

NRF appealed to Biden in a letter sent to the White House Wednesday asking for the president to create a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB)  in an effort to help carriers and labor unions reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement.

“Peak import season is upon us, tied to back-to-school and holiday shopping,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in the letter to Biden. “Rail network disruptions in September could have long-lasting negative effects on these important selling seasons. Product delays and shortages are correlated with inflation—an issue of great significance to Americans and the economy.”

Shay’s letter also suggested lawmakers could lengthen the cooling off period between carriers and unions, which is currently set to expire July 18.

The Railway Labor Act oversees carriers and labor unions, creating a series of steps in the collective bargaining process aimed at preventing service disruptions.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which is negotiating on behalf of freight carriers, and the dozen unions entered a 30-day cooling off period June 18 after mediation concluded with the National Mediation Board.

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The unions are being represented by the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way/SMART Mechanical Coalition.

If the president does not establish a Presidential Emergency Board to help settle the dispute, workers and carriers would have the right to strike or use replacements, respectively, in what’s referred to as self-help measures. PEBs have historically been established prior to the end of the cooling off period.

The NCCC said in a statement following the end of mediation it was “disappointed” an agreement was not reached.

“It remains in the best interests of all parties—and the public—to settle this dispute, provide for prompt pay increases for all rail employees and prevent service disruptions,” the NCCC said. “The railroads have worked to address issues raised by both sides in the negotiations and have offered pay increases that are consistent with labor market benchmarks and reward rail employees for their essential work.”

The unions called the proposals “an insult.”

“These essential employees carried the railroads to their record profits throughout the last several years,” the rail unions said in a collective statement last month after mediation ended. “As much as the rail unions would have preferred to reach a voluntary settlement, this has become the only viable path to reaching a satisfactory conclusion.”

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) began mailing ballots authorizing a strike to its membership, of which it counts over 23,000. BLET is one of the dozen unions represented in negotiations.

BLET stressed that if the membership authorizes a strike, it does not mean one will automatically occur or that it would happen at railroads unilaterally.

“Now is the time to deliver a unified message to the carriers that their contract proposals are unacceptable to BLET’s membership and that we stand united,” BLET national president Dennis Pierce said late last month.

The rail talks come as dockworkers across the West Coast’s 29 ports continue their negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) on a new contract.

The PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the group representing labor, confirmed Friday talks would continue past the July 1 expiration of the most recent contract.

NRF also urged Biden last week to call for an immediate extension of the most recent agreement while the parties continue to negotiate. That letter was signed by more than 150 groups, ranging from fashion and retail to food and technology.

The PMA and ILWU confirmed Friday “cargo will keep moving, and normal operations will continue at the ports” during negotiations.

That wasn’t enough to soothe NRF and others’ fears of the potential for a new supply chain dislocation, with last week’s call for White House intervention at the ports pointing out, “this concern stems from a long history of disruptions during previous negotiations.”