President Obama stepped into a simmering dispute between rail unions and most major railroads Oct. 6, ordering up a special review board just hours before unions could have launched strikes and rail management could have locked them out.
Had a strike or lockup occurred, it could have quickly wrecked an already fragile economic recovery.
Few think a strike or lock-out will occur this year when all mandatory cooling-off periods finally run out under rail labor law.
But, then again, until recently, few expected Obama would have to get involved at all.
Last summer, about 30 railroads in the National Railway Labor Conference struck a contract deal with U.S. train conductors, yardmen and other workers represented by the United Transportation Union, the largest rail labor group.
In recent cycles, whenever the UTU or another major rail union reached the first contract with top railroads, the rest typically accepted that as the industry template.
So, this time around, the railroads offered locomotive engineers, track crews and nine other unions the same terms the UTU got — a six-year deal with a 17 percent wage increase plus what management said were “modest” changes to cut company costs for employee health care.
But the other unions rejected the offer, the National Mediation Board finally decided the sides were too far apart and, in September, the NMB released labor from its supervision.
That set off a first 30-day countdown, ending at midnight Oct. 6, right in the heart of the peak-shipping season for rail intermodal traffic and the start of the autumn harvest period — a bad time to shut down or curb train service.
In theory, labor and the railroads’ negotiators, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, could have kept talking on their own. But they were beyond that, and as time ran out, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen voted overwhelmingly to strike on Oct. 7 if Obama did not intervene.
All along, though, all parties expected him to order the first presidential emergency board for rail labor since 2007 and the first since the 1990s that could affect freight operations.
When the order finally came, the White House made its announcement late on the final day of the initial cool-down period, giving the five-person board of experienced arbitrators the most time during the next 30 days to investigate the disputes and propose terms to resolve them.
If either side rejects those recommendations, a final 30-day countdown will begin toward work disruptions early in December. And if it reaches that point, those final hours could make or break the economy just before Christmas.