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Biden steps in to help end freight railroad and union contract disputes

WASHINGTON, July 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order creating an emergency board to help resolve disputes between major freight rail carriers and their unions, in a move that could help loosen up some supply chain constraints.

The order came ahead of a deadline next week to intervene in nationwide U.S. railroad labor talks covering 115,000 workers, or open the door to a potential strike or lockout that could threaten an already-fragile economy and choke supplies of food and fuel.

If the president had not created the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) before 12:01 a.m. EDT on Monday, the railroads and unions could have opted for operational shutdowns or strikes, respectively. The order becomes effective Monday.

The board "will provide a structure for workers and management to resolve their disagreements. The Board will investigate the dispute and, within 30 days of its establishment, deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved," the White House said.

Talks between major freight railroads, including Union Pacific (UNP) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A)-owned BNSF, and unions representing their workers have dragged out more than two years.

The order triggers a "cooling off" period so the two sides can work toward settlement.

"We look forward to the forthcoming recommendations of the presidentially appointed arbitrators," said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department that represents several railroad unions.

U.S. business groups representing retailers as well as food and fuel producers in letters to Biden warned that failing to appoint a PEB would be "disastrous" for the softening economy.

Railroads move everything from Amazon packages to fuel oil and soybeans, and a shutdown of any kind could send prices for necessities higher and upend battered supply chains. (Reporting by Chris Sanders and Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Marguerita Choy and Sandra Maler)

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