Calls for government intervention to prevent a rail strike in early-to-mid-December became louder Monday, with more than 400 state and national trade groups asking the majority and minority leaders of Congress to prevent a rail strike they maintain could further hobble the U.S. economy.

In a Monday letter to Congress, the groups pleaded with congressional leaders to address the possible rail strike, calling it a “matter of grave urgency” because of the potential billions of dollars such a shutdown could cost the U.S. economy.

Members of four rail unions have failed to ratify a labor agreement, while eight others have ratified theirs. The cooling-off period in which neither the unions nor railroads can take any corrective actions ends just after midnight EST on Dec. 9. If no agreement has been reached before then, union members could go on strike or the railroads could lock out union workers.

The four unions to have not ratified labor deals consist of over 56% of all unionized workers who have been seeking to receive a new contract since January 2020. They include two of the larger unions, one representing train conductors and the other maintenance-of-way employees.

“As provided for under federal law and consistent with past practice, Congress must be prepared to intervene before the end of the current ‘status quo’ period on Dec. 9 to ensure continued rail service should railroads and [the] four unions fail to reach a voluntary agreement. A strike by any one union would assuredly result in a stoppage of national rail service,” said the letter signed by the Agriculture Transport Coalition, American Chemistry Council, American Petroleum Institute and National Retail Federation, among others.

The letter also hearkened back to September, when freight railroads reduced their operations of handling hazardous materials ahead of a potential strike as a security measure. That strike could have occurred had the two largest rail unions — the ones representing train conductors and locomotive engineers — failed to reach a tentative agreement. After reaching that deal, the locomotive engineers voted to ratify it, but the train conductors ultimately turned it down.

“Many businesses will see the impacts of a national rail strike well before Dec. 9 — through service disruptions and other impacts potentially as  early as Dec. 5,” the letter said. “The sooner this labor impasse ends, the better for our communities and our national economy.”

Monday’s letter follows past calls by trade groups asking for Congress to prevent a rail strike. Stakeholders are watching whether legislators will enact legislation that could extend the cooling-off period, prevent a strike or require the parties to adhere to the collective bargaining agreement reached in August and September. 

The existing labor agreement builds upon recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a three-person independent panel appointed by President Joe Biden to resolve the negotiations impasse between the railroads and unions. But sticking points for union members include a request for more generous sick leave options — something the PEB did not address extensively in its recommendations and also an item the railroads for now appear publicly not to be willing to budge on.

“No one wins when the railroads stop running,” the letter said. “Congress recognized their necessity to interstate commerce and America’s economic health with the passage of the Railway Labor Act and past congressional interventions in rail labor disputes when other steps failed. Indeed, Congress has intervened 18 times since 1926 in labor negotiations that threaten interstate commerce and there is no reason why Congress should deviate from this record today. 

“While a voluntary agreement with the four holdout unions is the best outcome, the risks to America’s economy and communities simply make a national rail strike unacceptable. Therefore, absent a voluntary agreement, we call on you [Congress] to take immediate steps to prevent a national rail strike and the certain economic destruction that would follow.”

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