(NewsNation) — With a potential rail strike less than two weeks away, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NewsNation’s Leland Vittert that a shutdown “is not acceptable” but declined to say whether President Joe Biden’s administration would support rail workers if they strike.
On Monday, one of the biggest rail unions rejected its deal, joining three others that have failed to approve contracts over concerns about working conditions and a lack of paid sick time. If the parties can’t reach an agreement, rail workers could strike as soon as Dec. 5.
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“We’ve got to get to a solution that does not subject the American economy to the threat of a shutdown,” Buttigieg told Vittert. “We don’t have enough barges, or ships, or trucks in this country to make up for the rail network.”
Railroads haul about 40% of the nation’s freight each year and a shutdown would have ripple effects across the nation. Food manufacturers and retailers at the height of the holiday shopping season are bracing for disruptions.
Commuter rail systems, many of which rely on tracks owned by freight railroads, would also be impacted.
If the two sides can’t reach a deal, Congress could step in and force an agreement by imposing contract terms. Such an intervention would prevent a strike that could cost more than $2 billion a day, according to estimates by the Association of American Railroads.
The question is whether Democratic lawmakers are prepared to go against their political allies — unions.
When asked whether the Biden administration would back rail workers in the event of a strike, Buttigieg did not answer directly.
“I don’t want to get into a scenario over battle lines that haven’t fully been drawn yet,” he said.
Instead, the transportation secretary emphasized his support for the tentative agreement that was reached back in September.
“The tentative agreement was one that everybody moved in order to get done — the railroad companies and the unions,” said Buttigieg. “I think it was a good agreement.”
That agreement, which was proposed by a Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board, included 24% raises over a five-year period, $5,000 in bonuses and one additional paid leave day a year but some unions are pushing for more reliable schedules and better working conditions.
“Some people don’t even have rest days or days off,” Jeremy Ferguson, the president of Smart Transportation Division (SMART-TD), told NewsNation’s “Rush Hour” on Monday. “That makes life very difficult.”
SMART-TD, which has 28,000 members, is one of four unions that has yet to reach an agreement. Eight others have agreed to terms with the railroads but if just one union fails to reach a deal, all rail workers would be set to walk out.
Congress is expected to step in to settle the dispute as it did in 1991. Back then, lawmakers ended a national railroad strike less than 24 hours after it began.