State braces for strike

By: 
Nicole Pollack with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — With the U.S. on the verge of its first national railroad strike in three decades, Wyoming’s biggest industries are preparing to suffer losses in the coming weeks. 

The hope, for all parties, is to reach a deal that resolves stalled contract negotiations between the railroads and their unionized workers before Friday, when a federally mandated cooling-off period times out and the unions become free to strike. 

But as the deadline nears, a stoppage is looking increasingly likely. The question, for many, is how long it will last. 

“If we don’t have trains, we don’t mine the coal,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “Even a day will have ripple effects for weeks.” 

Wyoming supplies roughly 40% of the country’s coal. 

With recent months’ high natural gas prices temporarily slowing the power sector’s shift from coal-fired electricity, utilities’ coal stockpiles have remained lower — and Powder River Basin coal prices higher — over the past year than at any time during the previous decade. 

If the railroads can’t move that coal, however, Wyoming’s mines could be forced to scale back production or even shut down until rail service resumes. It’s unclear how mine workers will be affected if a strike occurs. 

“Our office is monitoring this situation very closely, as a strike would have significant impacts to not only Wyoming’s economy through supply chain disruptions, but to energy prices and grid stability nationally,” Gov. Mark Gordon’s communications director, Michael Pearlman, said via email. 

Other staples of the Wyoming economy, including trona, oil and grain shipments, are also at risk. 

The state’s energy producers — particularly the coal industry — are already frustrated with the railroads. 

Railroads curtailed their workforce as coal demand declined in the years before the pandemic, made further cuts in early 2020 and have struggled to meet mines’ current needs. 

According to the country’s two biggest railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), which together represent about 115,000 workers, inadequate labor conditions have exacerbated and prolonged railroads’ staffing shortages. 

“The railroaders want a better quality of life,” said Stan Blake, a former state lawmaker and retired conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad who is no longer working for the company or participating in a union.

“Because right now,” he added, “the railroad is working them nonstop.” 

Attendance policies enacted by both Union Pacific and BNSF Railway have incensed their employees, many of whom say they rarely get enough rest, dread the next call into work and live in fear of sleeping through it. 

“You just kind of spend your life guessing,” said a Union Pacific worker who was granted anonymity to avoid the possibility of retaliation. “You miss a lot of things.” 

The railroads’ last national contract with their unions expired in 2020. 

When the parties couldn’t come to an agreement on their own, President Joe Biden intervened, creating a Presidential Emergency Board that tried to find a middle ground. BNSF and Union Pacific accepted its recommendations, which include a substantial pay raise along with one additional day off per year. But the unions weren’t satisfied. 

“What we want, and continue to push for, is a prompt resolution that provides historic wage increases to employees and allows the railroads to restore service as soon as possible, preventing further disruption to the struggling supply chain,” a Union Pacific statement said. 

In a separate statement, BNSF said it remains “committed to the collective bargaining process and [has] faith that should a labor strike occur, Congress will intervene to prevent or quickly resolve the service disruption.” 

Blake expects a strike. But he doubts it’ll last very long. 

He walked the picket line during the country’s last rail strike, in 1992, which lasted three days and cost the country more than a billion dollars, the first Bush administration estimated, before Congress stepped in and ordered the unions back to work. 

“I hope they go on strike,” Blake said. “And I hope Congress doesn’t intervene, and the railroad comes back to the negotiating table and says, ‘Let’s work on this fatigue issue. Let’s work on the work-rest cycles.’” 

That’s how the unions hope the dispute will end. 

“Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism,” both unions said in a joint statement on Sunday. 

This time around, though, a strike could cost the U.S. $2 billion per day, according to the Association of American Railroads. 

All three members of Wyoming’s Congressional delegation emphasized the harm a strike would cause to the state in statements emailed to the Star-Tribune. 

Rep. Liz Cheney called it “a devastating development for both producers and consumers.” 

Sen. John Barrasso said he expected it to “add to the problems that we’re facing now as a nation under this administration.” 

And Sen. Cynthia Lummis said the resulting supply-chain disruptions would dwarf those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The railroads and their labor are negotiating in good faith,” she said, “though if they cannot reach an agreement, Congress should step in and pass the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations swiftly.”

 

This story was published on Sept. 15, 2022.

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