U.S. hosts railway labor talks to avert shutdown

STORY: Racing to head off a potentially catastrophic railway shutdown that could come as early as Friday, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh hosted representatives from both railroads and freight train worker unions to/in Washington Wednesday, searching for common ground.

Railroads including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway, CSX and Norfolk Southern have until a minute after midnight on Friday to reach tentative deals with three hold-out unions representing about 60,000 workers.

President Joe Biden's administration said it was making contingency plans, over fears the labor strife could snarl deliveries of critical goods.

Here's White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre:

"A shutdown is not acceptable. That is not something that we want. It risks harming families, it risks farming, harming businesses and whole communities. And we have made that clear empathetically and repeatedly to both parties."

A shutdown could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments, stoke inflation, impede supplies of food and fuel, cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion per day and cause transportation woes.

If agreements are not reached, there could be union strikes or employer lockouts.

But the railroads and unions also could agree to stay at the bargaining table, or the Democratic-led U.S. Congress could intervene by extending talks or establishing settlement terms.

The Biden administration's push comes as food, energy, automotive and retail groups implore Congress to intervene.

Railroads originate almost a quarter of U.S. grain shipments, and the energy sector relies on rail to move coal, crude oil, ethanol and other products.

Another concern is transporting hazardous materials. Some fear dangerous cargo could be left stranded in unsafe locations if rail traffic is halted.

Unions in the current talks have been offered significant pay increases. But they are grappling with railroad operators over working conditions that they have said worsened after the industry slashed its workforce by almost 30% over the past six years.

The stakes are high for Biden, who has vowed to rein in soaring consumer costs ahead of November elections that will determine whether his fellow Democrats maintain control of Congress.