Alaska would be insulated from a nationwide railroad strike, officials say

An aerial photo of showing a coastal industrial area, with docks, many large tanks and stacks of shipping containers.
The Port of Alaska is seen from the air on Aug. 11, 2022. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

If a nationwide rail strike takes place this month, the Alaska Railroad will keep moving, but tie-ups in the Lower 48 could disrupt cargo that comes to Alaska from Seattle and Tacoma, officials said this week.

Several unions are planning a strike that could begin as soon as Dec. 9 after the failure of contract negotiations between those unions and the nation’s largest railroads.

The biggest sticking point is the issue of health and personal leave. Unions say workers have been forced to work grueling schedules due to short-staffing and policies that prevent workers from taking leave to address health issues and personal problems.

President Joe Biden negotiated a compromise deal to avoid a strike in September, but workers at four of the 12 unions involved in the negotiations voted down the proposal. Those four unions represent a majority of workers in the 12 groups.

Now, the strike is looming again, and Biden is urging Congress to pass legislation that would force workers and rail companies to accept a strike-averting deal.

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said on Tuesday that she will not vote for the legislation in its present form.

“I just don’t think it’s right or fair to expect workers to go to work sick as a dog without being able to have a few days to recover,” she said in an interview with NBC News.

Railroads carry 28% of America’s freight, according to pre-pandemic figures published by the Federal Railroad Administration. While most Christmas gifts are already on shelves, any disruptions to that freight traffic could lead to shortages of some products.

Asked whether a strike could cause catastrophic damage to the national economy, Peltola said, “I think it could also cause a catastrophic damage to the nation’s economy if we’re expecting a whole sector of employees to go to work sick,” she said.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators have yet to take a public position on the strike-averting legislation.

Here in Alaska, 68% of employees at the state-owned Alaska Railroad are unionized, but those unions aren’t part of the current labor struggle, said Christy Terry, the railroad’s director of external affairs.

“The strike will not affect our service within Alaska,” she said in an email.

“The only impact we will encounter, due to the strike, will be with railcars that originate in the Lower 48 and are interchanged to us in Seattle,” she said.

Though the Alaska Railroad isn’t directly connected to the Lower 48, it does operate a rail-marine barge service that takes railcars from Seattle to Whittier and back.

In 2021, that barge accounted for 8.7% of all railcars moved on the railroad, but the service solely carries heavy industrial goods, not things bound for store shelves, Terry said.

“Yes, there would be an impact if there was a service disruption, but solely (on) commercial goods.  Those would be along the lines of mining, oilfield, construction, etc.” she said.

She and others said that if Alaska sees any disruption during a rail strike, it would most likely be at the southern end of Alaska’s supply chain, where goods are loaded onto ships and barges bound for the Port of Alaska in Anchorage or smaller facilities in Southeast Alaska, Kodiak, Unalaska and along the coast.

Dylan Faber is the government and community relations manager for Matson, which ships regularly to Alaska. He said there are no plans to change the shipping schedule here.

“And I haven’t seen any hiccups in the schedule that indicate that we would have any impact,” said Jim Jager, director of external affairs for the Port of Alaska. “The problem is: Do the goods get to Tacoma?”

The Northwest Seaport Alliance is the combined port authority for Seattle and Tacoma, and rail service carries more than half of the cargo imported inland through those ports, said Melanie Stambaugh, the authority’s communications director.

“A rail service stoppage would likely lead to cargo containers remaining on marine terminals for longer periods of time,” she said in an email. “Marine Terminal capacity is limited and large quantities of containers remaining on terminal can reduce how quickly vessels can be unloaded/loaded.”

That could disrupt outbound shipments to Alaska, but it’s impossible to tell how large the disruption would be.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the port authority created “near-dock container yards to handle surge cargo capacity,” Stambaugh said. “These yards can offer some relief in the event of a rail strike.”

Furthermore, she added, “Many products that move north to Alaska are sourced in the Puget Sound, and these products should not be impacted by rail.”

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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