Back on track: Congress blocks rail strike that put economy in danger

It took an act of Congress, but lawmakers thwarted a threatened rail workers’ strike that could have devastated our national economy, especially during a Christmas buying season that depends so much on our railroads to get materials to our stores and factories.

It surely would have hurt the Rio GrandeValley, which relies heavily on rail-based trade, both within the United States and across our international border.

Rail workers had set a Dec. 9 strike deadline after more than three years of negotiations on a new work contract. President Biden called on Congress to pass legislation that would stop the strike. The House on Wednesday passed a bill granting some of the workers’ demands and forcing an agreement, and the Senate followed suit on Thursday.

The workers, who complain that they are always on call, want higher wages, paid sick leave and extra time off. Twelve unions were involved in the negotiations and although some of them had approved agreement offers others hadn’t, and if any one of them had called a strike they all would have walked out to show solidarity.

The congressional agreement includes a 24% in pay raises that are partly retroactive to 2020 and continue until 2024. The workers, who currently receive one paid sick day, will get seven per year and their paid personal days change from three to four. Those days had to be requested and approved in advance, so any sudden illness or injury wouldn’t qualify for leave.

Analysts say a strike would have cost our national economy $2 billion every day. A significant part of that would be felt in South Texas, where trains carry $250 billion in merchandise to and from Mexico. Much of that cargo is offloaded onto overland trailers at Valley trade zones and other transfer points, or onto ships at our seaports — not to mention the retail outlets and industrial enterprises that depend on railways to supply their parts and merchandise.

“Rail is an integral part of the Valley economy,” Daniel Silva, president of the Valley Partnership, told us. “We have a lot of commerce that comes through the Valley by rail. A strike would make it difficult getting products from the maquiladoras and to the Port of Brownsville.”

The threatened work stoppage already was affecting some areas of the economy. Some suppliers already were curtailing shipments of fertilizers and chemicals such as chlorine for water purification, so that railcars filled with the potentially volatile or toxic materials wouldn’t sit idle and unattended in rail yards if work were to stop. Fertilizer shortages could affect yields and quality of Valley winter crops, chlorine is needed by water utilities, school swimming facilities and even the Gladys Porter Zoo.

The congressional compromise saves Americans from even greater supply shortages and price increases, but all sides likely won’t be happy that their hands were forced. We hope the agreement motivates rail companies and their workers to continue working on a deal that they can call their own, and are willing to accept for the long haul.