Shipments of vital food, agriculture and energy products in and out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area could screech to a halt Friday morning with angry railroad employees threatening a strike that could upend the nation’s already fragile supply chain.
Beer and auto parts from Mexico, cattle from Texas ranches and oil from the Gulf of Mexico could be stuck in North Texas railyards waiting for workers and the companies that operate trains to end their standoff.
A coalition of a dozen railroad unions is threatening to strike as early as 12:01 a.m. Friday if they can’t come to a deal with the biggest U.S. railroad companies, including Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX and Kansas City Southern. That’s when a federally mandated cooling-off period ends, releasing unions from the complicated rules governing railroad workers’ ability to strike.
But the two sides seem far apart on solutions, leaving dozens of industries in North Texas uncertain about how much they can rely on rail in the coming days and weeks. Railroads have already begun curtailing shipments of hazardous materials, including ammonia, an important component in fertilizer used by American farmers. Passenger rail service Amtrak has canceled long-distance trips ahead of Friday’s deadline.
“Dallas-Fort Worth is the largest metro area in the country without a major water port,” said Guy Brown, who heads economic development in Hutchins, where the International Inland Port of Dallas intermodal facility is responsible for about 93% of the city’s tax base. “Any disruption will radiate throughout the system.”
North Texas is a key connecting point for traffic from Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern and western parts of the United States through railroads and interstate highways. That has made it into a major hub of operations for BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and Kansas City Southern and even Wabtec’s 1 million-square-foot train factory in Fort Worth.
Texas has more rail employees than any other state, more miles of railroad and more rail shipments end their journey in Texas than anywhere else in the nation, according to the Association of American Railroads. More than 17,000 people worked in the rail industry in Texas in 2019 and 208 million tons of goods ended their journey here, the trade group said.
Experts say a strike of any length will hurt distributors, manufacturers, farmers and other groups that rely on rail deliveries in Texas. But an extended strike lasting weeks or months would cause widespread shortages of key retail goods, industrial products, food and other staples.
“If it’s a few days, to be honest, it’s a minor disruption and you will see companies recover quickly,” said Bindiya Vakil, CEO of California-based supply chain technology firm Resilinc. “But if it goes on for two weeks or more, then there will be widespread issues.”
Trade groups for farmers, bakers and food manufacturers have sent letters to lawmakers asking them to prevent a strike. The White House has warned that chlorine shipments to wastewater treatment plants and coal for utility plants could be delayed.
Laura Freeland, executive director of the Southern Dallas County Inland Port Transportation Management Association, said dozens of industries rely on the rail terminal and intermodal facility in Hutchins. That includes appliance manufacturers such as Whirlpool, retailers such as AutoZone and companies that make building and medical supplies.
“Supply chain has become such a focus for companies,” Freeland said. “They are paying attention to what is going on.”
Railroad engineers and conductors, who are leading the strike threat, want more protections to help with “quality of life issues” that union leaders say have made life as a railroad engineer or conductor untenable and are driving away young recruits. They say railroad operators have enacted strict attendance policies that make it difficult to take time off to go to work or attend family events. It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by other union and nonunionized workers over the last year, from pilots and flight attendants to retail and restaurant workers.
“No working-class American should be treated with this level of harassment in the workplace for simply becoming ill or going to a routine medical visit,” said a letter Sunday from the two lead unions in the dispute, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Society and SMART-TD. “These employment policies have forced thousands of employees out of the industry and make it all but impossible to recruit new workers.”
The trade group for railroad operators says they are offering generous raises and just want to ensure that critical railroads keep operating as they face their own shortage of workers.
It’s been decades since a vital industry such as rail has faced an industrywide shutdown, said Bob Bruno, a labor and economics professor at the University of Illinois.
“We don’t see national strikes anymore,” Bruno said. “They tend to be conflicts between one union and one workplace, not against an entire industry.”
A Presidential Emergency Board appointed by the Biden administration to broker a deal is recommending a contract that would give immediate 14.1% raises and increase that to 24% over the next five years. In Texas, railroad workers made about $131,000 a year on average in 2019, according to the American Association of Railroads.
But union leaders say their members need relief from years of strain following layoffs, furloughs and a shrinking number of railroad workers.
“Usually they are able to work their way through a deal but this season might be different for a whole number of reasons,” said Allen Rutter, a researcher at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. “Like the airline workers, nurses and truck drivers, railroad workers showed up to work during the pandemic and kept the trains running.”