A rail employee works a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard on November 21, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
The House passed legislation Wednesday that would force a tentative rail labor agreement and thwart a national strike. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised swift passage.
The House voted 290 to 137 — with 79 Republicans joining 211 Democrats — to pass the legislation, which approves new contracts providing railroad workers with 24% pay increases over five years from 2020 through 2024, immediate payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification, and an extra paid day off.
Eight Democrats and 129 Republicans voted against the legislation.
In a separate 221 to 207 vote, the House also approved a resolution to provide seven days of paid sick leave in the contract instead of one, which is rail workers’ main disagreement with the current deal. As it stands rail workers don’t have guaranteed paid sick leave.
The vote comes after President Joe Biden called on Congress to intervene in the stalled talks between railroads and some of the industry’s major unions. He met with the four House and Senate leaders Tuesday in an effort to avoid the economic impacts of a rail strike, which the industry forecasts could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day.
Biden has said he’s reluctant to override the vote against the contract by some unions but that a rail shutdown would “devastate” the economy.
“This overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country. The Senate must now act urgently,” Biden said in a statement.
Railways and their labor unions had until Dec. 9 to reach an agreement before workers promised to strike.
In a statement Tuesday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said passing legislation to enforce an agreement denies them the right to strike and will not fix the problems or concerns of railroad workers.
The union said it was calling on Biden and any member of Congress who “truly supports the working class to act swiftly by passing any sort of reforms and regulations that will provide paid sick leave for all Railroad Workers.”
According to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group, a presidential board created to help resolve contract talks reviewed the union’s request for additional paid sick days and instead offered additional salary.
“If the unions are interested in a holistic discussion for structural changes as it relates to their sick time, I think absolutely the railroad carriers would be up for a holistic discussion, but [they] have not done it in the zero hour,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said at a press conference on rail preparations.
Each union has its own sick day policy, according to National Railway Labor Conference, or NRLC. If an employee is sick, they need to be out of work between four and seven days before they collect their version of sick pay.
The tentative labor deal grants workers one additional personal day, for a total of three personal days for railroad workers. A worker must provide 48 hours notice to request a personal day. The measure approved by the House Wednesday would add paid sick leave to the agreement.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on social media before the vote that the tentative agreement did not go far enough.
Strike prep curtails trade
Even the threat of a strike can have impacts on rail movement.
According to federal safety measures, railroad carriers begin prepping for a strike seven days before the strike date. The carriers start to prioritize the securing and movement of sensitive materials such as chlorine for drinking water and hazardous materials.
Ninety-six hours before a strike date, chemicals are no longer transported. According to the American Chemistry Council, railroad industry data shows a drop of 1,975 carloads of chemical shipments during the week of Sept. 10 when the railroads stopped accepting shipments due to the previous threat of a rail strike.
Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, said railroad carriers have told their members that ammonia shipments, a critical component for fertilizer companies, would not be allowed on the rail starting Dec. 4 if a labor agreement isn’t reached.
“It traditionally takes five to seven days for the supply chain to catch up when you have a shutdown,” said Rosenbusch. “Fertilizer manufacturing would have to be curtailed.”
The four major railroads typically move more than 80% of the agricultural freight traffic, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.
“We are looking for alternatives now to position our product,” said Mike Seyfert, the association’s president and CEO. “We have zero elasticity right now. There are zero drivers, and the barge situation with the low water levels has only added to this challenge.”
Collective bargaining’s future
Brendan Branon, NRLC chair, told CNBC that Congress, in voting on the labor deal, is also weighing in on the future of collective bargaining. He urged Congress to follow the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board, which Biden created in July to resolve the ongoing dispute between major freight rail carriers and unions.
The board crafts its recommendations under a principle known as pattern bargaining, which is the process used by trade unions and employers where demands and entitlements are made.
“Pattern bargaining promotes stability in collective bargaining, and it encourages settlement,” Branon said. “There’s any number of arbitrators and PEBs who have recognized that this is not only acceptable, this is the most appropriate form to settle complex negotiations, especially multi-employer, multi-craft agreements.”
Branon said a number of industries including the railroads have developed a set of clear practices in bargaining, and the additional negotiating by the unions after the tentative agreement departs from the framework recommended by the PEB.
“Departing from a pattern would establish a precedent that there’s still a better outcome achievable, and I think it would pose significant stress and risk for collective bargaining in the future for the railroad industry,” he said.
Southwest forecasts lingering losses as bookings slow in wake of holiday meltdown
Travelers check in at a Southwest Airlines ticket counter during the busy Christmas holiday season at Orlando International Airport on December 28, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Southwest shares sunk nearly 5% Thursday, trading at roughly $35.
The carrier reported a net loss of $220 million in the fourth quarter after the travel chaos drove up expenses and cost it millions in revenue during what was expected to be the busiest travel period since before the pandemic.
“Thus far in January 2023, the Company has experienced an increase in flight cancellations and a deceleration in bookings, primarily for January and February 2023 travel, which are assumed to be associated with the operational disruptions in December 2022,” Southwest said in a quarterly report.
Analysts had been anticipating a per-share profit of 19 cents for the first quarter, based on estimates compiled by Refinitiv.
The Dallas-based airline said booking trends look positive in March, however, and it forecast first-quarter revenue up 20% to 24% over last year with capacity up 10%. It also estimated fuel and other costs would be higher than it previously estimated.
Southwest’s fourth-quarter loss compares with a $68 million profit during the same period in 2021. Its record revenue of $6.17 billion was up more than 22% from a year earlier.
Here’s how Southwest performed in the fourth quarter, compared with Wall Street expectations according to Refinitiv consensus estimates:
- Adjusted loss per share: 38 cents vs an expected loss of 12 cents.
- Total revenue: $6.17 billion vs an expected $6.16 billion.
The airline said the mass cancellations hit its pretax results by $800 million, in line with its estimate earlier this month of a hit between $725 million and $825 million.
Southwest canceled around 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 though Dec. 31 after severe winter weather swept through the U.S.
While rival airlines had largely recovered around Christmas after the winter weather, Southwest’s technology was unable to process all the flight changes and crews had to call the carrier to get rescheduled. The carrier decided to scrap most of its flights in the following days to reset its operation, CEO Bob Jordan said earlier this month.
The carrier has been processing tens of thousands of refunds and complex reimbursements for travelers who booked flights on other airlines to get to their destinations.
The Transportation Department is investigating whether Southwest’s schedules over the holidays were “unrealistic,” a spokesperson said late Wednesday.
Despite the rocky end of the year, Southwest reported a $539 million profit for 2022. That’s still down 45% from a year earlier, however.
Southwest’s executives will hold a call with analysts and media at 12:30 ET. They are likely to face questions about any additional costs and political fallout from its missteps as well as an update on technology updates that aim to prevent another meltdown.
Inflation is cooling, but prices on many items are going to stay high for months
A shopper checks out the egg section at the Publix at Winter Park Village, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Tribune News Service | Getty Images
Inflation may be cooling. But, for most Americans, the price of a cup of coffee or a bag of groceries hasn’t budged.
In the months ahead, the big question is whether consumers will start to feel relief, too.
Over the past few months, many of the key factors that fueled a four-decade high in inflation have begun to fade. Shipping costs have dropped. Cotton, beef and other commodities have gotten cheaper. And shoppers found deeper discounts online and at malls during the holiday season, as retailers tried to clear through excess inventory. Consumer prices fell 0.1% in December compared with the prior month, according to the Labor Department. It marked the biggest monthly drop in nearly three years.
But cheaper freight and commodity costs won’t immediately trickle down to consumers, in part due to supplier contracts that set prices for months in advance.
Prices are still well above where they were a year ago. The headline consumer price index, which measures the cost of a wide variety of goods and services, is up 6.5% as of December, according to Labor Department data. Some price increases are eye-popping: The cost of large Grade A eggs has more than doubled, while the price tags for cereal and bakery products have climbed 16.1%.
“There are some prices, some goods for which prices are falling,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “But broadly, prices aren’t falling. It’s just that the rate of increase is slowing.”
Retailers, restaurants, airlines and other companies are deciding whether to pass on price cuts or impress investors with improved profit margins. Consumers are getting pickier about spending. And economists are weighing whether the U.S. will enter a recession this year.
Sticky contracts, higher wages
During the early days of the Covid pandemic, Americans went on spending sprees at the same time that factories and ports shuttered temporarily. Containers clogged up ports. Stores and warehouses struggled with out-of-stock merchandise.
That surge in demand and limited supply contributed to higher prices.
Now, those factors have started to reverse. As Americans feel the pinch of inflation and spend on other priorities such as commutes, trips and dining out, they have bought less stuff.
Freight costs and container costs have eased, bringing down prices along the rest of the supply chain. The cost for a long-distance truckload was up 4% in December compared with the year-ago period, but down nearly 8% from March’s record high, according to Labor Department data.
The cost of a 40-foot shipping container has fallen 80% below the peak of $10,377 in September 2021 to $2,079 as of mid-January, according to the World Container Index of Drewry, a supply chain advisory firm. But it is still higher than prepandemic rates.
Food and clothing materials have become cheaper. Wholesale beef prices dropped 15.6% in November compared with a year ago, but are still historically elevated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Coffee beans fell 19.7% in the same time, according to the International Coffee Organization’s composite global price. Raw cotton’s cost plunged 23.8%, according to Labor Department data.
However, to protect against unpredictable spikes in prices, many companies have long-term contracts that set the prices they pay to operate their businesses months in advance, from buying ingredients to moving goods across the world.
For example, Chuy’s Tex Mex locked in prices for fajita beef that are lower than what the chain paid last year, and it plans to also lock in prices for ground beef during the third quarter. But diners will likely still pay higher menu prices than they were last year.
Chuy’s plans to raise prices about 3% to 3.5% in February, although it has no more price hikes planned for later this year due to its conservative pricing strategy. The chain’s prices are up about 7% compared with the year-ago period, trailing the overall restaurant industry’s price hikes.
Similarly, coffee drinkers are unlikely to see a drop in their latte and cold brew prices this year. Dutch Bros. Coffee CEO Joth Ricci told CNBC that most coffee businesses hedge their prices six to 12 months in advance. He predicts coffee chains’ pricing could stabilize as early as the middle of 2023 and as late as the end of 2024.
Supplier contracts aren’t the only reason for sticky prices. Labor has gotten more expensive for businesses that need plenty of workers but have struggled to find them. Restaurants, nail salons, hotels and doctors’ offices will still reckon with the cost of higher wages, Moody’s Zandi said.
A shortage of airplane pilots is among the factors that will likely keep airfares more expensive this year. The price of airline tickets have dropped in recent months but are still up nearly 30% from last year, according to the most recent federal data.
However, Zandi said, if the job market remains strong, inflation eases and wages grow, Americans can better manage higher prices for airfare and other items.
Annual hourly earnings have risen by 4.6% over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not as high as the consumer price index’s growth in December.
Yet in some categories, softening demand has translated to price relief. Several hot pandemic items, including TVs, computers, sporting goods and major appliances have dropped in price, according to Labor Department data from December.
Budget pressures for families
Top retail executives said they expect families’ budgets will still be under pressure in the year ahead.
“The increase is starting to moderate a little bit,” said McMullen. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to start seeing deflation. We would expect to see inflation in the first half of the year. Second half of the year would be meaningfully lower.”
He said there are some exceptions. Eggs, for example, will likely become cheaper as as Avian flu outbreak recedes.
Over the past two years, consumer packaged goods companies have raised prices of items on Kroger’s shelves or reduced packaging sizing, a strategy known as “shrinkflation.” McMullen said none have come back to the grocer to lower prices or step up discounting levels from a year ago. Some are keeping aggressive prices, as they play catch-up after margins got squeezed earlier in the pandemic or as they sacrifice volume for profits, he said.
At Procter & Gamble, for example, executives plan to increase prices again in February. Prices on P&G’s consumer staples like Pampers diapers and Bounty paper towels have climbed 10% compared with the year earlier, while demand slipped 6% in its latest quarter.
In other cases, companies are still dealing with factors that contributed to inflation. For example, farmers are raising cows, but have fewer than before the pandemic, and grains and corn are less plentiful as the war in Ukraine continues, according to McMullen.
“If before you were spending $80 and now you’re spending $90 [on groceries], I think you’re going to be spending $90 for awhile,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to go back to $80.”
Utz Brands CEO Dylan Lissette echoed that sentiment back in August, telling investors that list prices usually don’t fall even when costs come down.
“We don’t take something that was $1, move it to $1.10 and then a year or two later, move it to $1,” he said.
Instead, food companies such as Utz typically offer steeper and more frequent discounts to customers as costs drop, according to Lissette, who was once in charge of pricing Utz’s pretzels and kettle chips.
Over the next few years, companies may reverse “shrinkflation” packaging changes that result in cheaper snacks on a per ounce basis. And two or three years after that, shoppers may see the introduction of new value pack sizes, Lissette said.
Retailers’ ace in the hole
But retailers may be able to speed up that timeline. They can use their own, lower-priced private brands, such as the peanut butters, cereals and laundry detergents that resemble the well-known national brands.
Kroger last fall rolled out Smart Way, a new private brand with more than 100 items like loaves of bread, canned vegetables and other staples at its lowest price point.
McMullen said the grocer already planned to launch the private label, but sped up its debut by about six to nine months because of shoppers’ interest in value amid inflation. And he added, if a national brand loses market share, they’re more likely to get aggressive on discounts — or even permanently lower the price.
Zandi, the Moody’s economist, said while customers may grow frustrated, they are not powerless. By choosing competing brands or opting for items on promotion, they can send a message.
“Businesses do respond to shoppers,” he said. “If consumers are price-conscious, price-sensitive, that’ll go a long way to convincing businesspeople to stop raising prices and maybe even provide a discount.”
— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this story.
Walmart raises minimum wage as retail labor market remains tight
An employee arranges beauty product gift boxes displayed for sale at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Los Angeles, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Walmart said Tuesday that it is raising its minimum wage for store employees to $14 an hour, representing a roughly 17% jump for the workers who stock shelves and cater to customers.
Starting in early March, store employees will make between $14 and $19 an hour. They currently earn between $12 and $18 an hour, according to Walmart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield.
With the move, the retailer’s U.S. average wage is expected to be more than $17.50, Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner said in an employee-wide memo on Tuesday.
About 340,000 store employees will get a raise because of the move, Hatfield said. That’s roughly a quarter of Walmart’s 1.3 million workers who work in the field, driving trucks, packing up online purchases and serving in stores.
The retail giant, which is the country’s largest private employer with 1.6 million employees, is hiking pay as part of employees’ annual increases. It comes as retailers continue to grapple with a tight labor market, despite thousands of job cuts at prominent tech companies, banks and media organizations.
In the employee memo, Furner said the wage hike will be part of many employees’ annual increases. Some of those pay increases will also go toward store employees who work in parts of the country where the labor market is more competitive, the company said.
Walmart is sweetening other perks to attract and retain employees, too. Furner said the company is adding more college degrees and certificates to its Live Better U program, which covers tuition and fees for part- and full-time workers. It is also creating more high-paid roles at its auto care centers and recruiting employees to become truck drivers, a job that can pay up to $110,000 in the first year.
This story is developing. Please check back for updates.
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