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A freight railroad strike could stop trains by Friday

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Talks continue to avert a massive strike and railroad shutdown. The strike could happen as soon as Friday, but we're already seeing the effects. Railroads are cutting shipments. Amtrak has stopped some passenger routes. And, as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the sticking point for workers isn't pay. It's the tough lifestyle railroad work imposes on people who keep the trains running.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN BLARING)

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On a normal day, about 7,000 freight trains like this BNSF train snaking through a rail junction in Kansas City crisscross the United States, carrying most of the stuff that makes the economy work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN BLARING)

MORRIS: But this whole system could shut down later this week because the people who drive these trains for a living are so angry.

DENNIS PIERCE: I have never seen this level of anger, animosity, acrimony - you pick the word that means they're pissed off - 'cause they are.

MORRIS: Dennis Pierce is president of the engineers' union. He says freight train engineers and conductors haven't had a raise in three years, but that's not the issue.

PIERCE: They do not have days off. They do not have a schedule.

MORRIS: They're on-call, Pierce says, sometimes for weeks on end. Railroad engineers and conductors are well paid - typically around $100,000 a year - but the lifestyle is brutal.

MILDRED HOOD: Yeah, it sucks the life right out of you.

MORRIS: Mildred Hood drove trains 38 years for Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

HOOD: You're constantly thinking about the job. When I got off work, I'd go home and I'd go to sleep, and I immediately know when I get up that they could call me to go to work.

MORRIS: Engineers and conductors want more predictable and flexible schedules. They've been bargaining with the railroads, along with 10 other unions representing railroad workers, for close to three years. The upshot of all that talking is a compromise hammered out by a board appointed by President Joe Biden. It would offer rail workers the biggest pay hike in decades - 24% - but it doesn't get at the work schedule issues. And Dennis Pierce says the railroads can do better.

PIERCE: Union Pacific reported its best year ever last year, and that's like 160 years' worth of best years - billions of dollars in profits. They can afford everything their employees are asking for.

MORRIS: Still, most of the railroad unions have tentatively signed off on the proposal currently on the table. The engineers and conductors are holding out and could trigger a strike Friday morning. That would cause immediate problems for manufacturers, says Lee Sanders with the American Bakers Association.

LEE SANDERS: If we don't get the ingredients that we need to our plants, we won't be able to make the products that we need to get our wholesome products to the consumers.

MORRIS: So empty shelves are a possibility. Farmers are worried about shipping grain. Dangerous chemicals have already stopped moving. Especially valuable goods are next, and passengers are getting stranded too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN STOPPING)

MORRIS: Amtrak is already shutting down most of its long-distance routes. That's because, outside of the northeast, Amtrak trains run on track owned and operated by the big freight railroads. So if there's a strike, those trains can't run. At Union Station in Kansas City, Tina Henderson (ph) and her baby daughter are waiting for their regular train to St. Louis.

TIA HENDERSON: People need to travel back and forth. People that don't have as much finances don't have a car, so I feel like them stopping, that'll be a horrible thing to do 'cause people wouldn't be able to make it home.

MORRIS: So a railroad strike would cost billions of dollars and derail lots of travel plans. It's a political nightmare for the party in power. The Biden administration is leaning on railroads and holdout unions to come to an agreement. If they don't and there's a strike or a lockout, Congress will likely force the two sides to accept a deal and go back to work.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.