What We Know About the Railroad Labor Talks to Prevent a Strike

Not every union has rejected the deal. The SMART Transportation Division, which represents freight rail conductors narrowly voted down the contract in November.

Members of a second large union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which primarily represents engineers, voted to approve the agreement, with 53.5 percent in favor.

Three smaller unions also covered by the agreement — the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers — all voted down the deal.

A strike could lead to significant economic disruptions. Federal data shows that railways transported about 28 percent of U.S. freight before the pandemic, including key industrial commodities like coal, lumber, ore and chemicals, making them the second-largest mode of freight transport, behind trucking, which is about 40 percent. Freight rail carriers are also important in moving automobiles and their components.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, wrote in September that the country would need more than 460,000 additional long-haul trucks each day if the nation’s freight rails shut down. The group said such a large shift toward trucking would be impossible because the industry lacked sufficient equipment and faced a shortage of tens of thousands of drivers.

The labor negotiations did not involve Amtrak employees, but in September when a strike was looming, the company said it would cancel long-distance passenger trains because it uses freight tracks that could be disrupted by work stoppages.

Rail freight is the centerpiece of the global supply chain, which has already been disrupted by the pandemic, with cargo ships, trains and trucks facing continued difficulties transporting goods. A strike would slow down the circulation of goods within the United States and with overseas trading partners.

The rail system also brings some crude oil from Canada into the United States, and helps export American gasoline and diesel to Mexico. A disruption to those movements push up gas prices, which have steadily fallen since June. Fuel prices are a major driver of overall inflation.