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Official: Rail worker strike could send 'shockwave' through North Dakota ag sector

"A rail strike would be extremely disruptive to the North Dakota grower harvest, which is just around the corner for corn," according to Brenda Elmer, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe employee working on a railroad track in north Moorhead on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Major U.S. railroads announced last week they were preparing for a possible strike by railroad workers, which could "send shock waves" through North Dakota's agriculture sector.

That's according to Brenda Elmer, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, who said in a written statement that corn growers in the state rely on rail to get their excess corn — corn that is not used in the state — transported to the Pacific Northwest for export.

"A rail strike would be extremely disruptive to the North Dakota grower harvest, which is just around the corner for corn," Elmer said, adding that a strike would result "in even greater spikes in our input costs this year, which have been unprecedentedly high."

The North Dakota Corn Growers Association represents 13,000 producers.

According to a Reuters report, major freight railroads, including BNSF and CSX, have said they were preparing for a possible strike and service disruption as a deadline looms Friday, Sept. 16, in protracted labor talks.

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train going through Dilworth on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

"While these preparations are necessary, it does not mean that a work stoppage is inevitable," BNSF told Reuters.

According to Reuters, contract negotiations between railways and unions representing 115,000 workers hit an impasse this summer after more than two years of talks. Failure to reach a settlement before a cooling-off period expires Friday could open the door to strikes, employer lockouts and congressional intervention.

Talks are ongoing, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads told Reuters.

Elmer said she is hopeful a strike will be avoided, noting that while corn can be transported by truck, it remains "very expensive."

The largest U.S. trucking industry group on Friday urged Congress to be prepared to prevent railroad shutdowns if the negotiations fail to produce contracts by the deadline.

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Railroad tracks looking east near the Dilworth BNSF yard on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

According to Reuters, a railroad work stoppage would require 467,000 long-haul trucks daily to handle shipments diverted from rail, while overall inflation costs would rise even higher.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said there likely would be some impacts on the petroleum industry if railroad workers went on strike, but he said those impacts would likely be small compared to other sectors such agriculture and manufacturing.

"Most of our oil production is going out by pipe now. There are certainly barrels (of oil) going out of state on rail, but those barrels are likely able to find another home at this point," Ness said.

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The Rail Passengers Association issued a statement on Monday, Sept. 12, in which it said there was a real potential for a rail workers strike this coming weekend.

"While President (Joe) Biden’s Administration and the U.S. Congress are actively engaged in mediating the dispute — which centers on working conditions more than pay — it is important for passengers to understand how it may affect rail operations," the statement from the RPA said.

"As the Association of American Railroads stated last week, freight railroads own ‘nearly 97% of the tracks on Amtrak’s nearly 22,000-mile system.’ If negotiations fail, America’s passenger trains will cease operations outside the Northeast Corridor," said Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passenger Association.

Mathews called on both freight railroads and rail labor organizations "to continue to negotiate in good faith; the U.S. rail network is too important to America’s citizens to allow for an extended shutdown of the system."

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

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