Congress may have to step in to get US railroads rolling

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A nationwide rail strike is the last thing the country wants during a recession.

Government pressure grows in Washington to end the nationwide rail strike that is deepening the country's economic slump. Failing to reach an agreement in the first effort to revive face-to-face negotiation, federal mediator Kay McMurray will try once more and then turn it over to the White House. Prospect is that Congress will be asked for another cooling off period.

The strike costs $50 million to $100 million a day, it is estimated. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis has met congressional leaders to prepare possible emergency action. Following a round of Capitol Hill meetings, Mr. Lewis met with President Reagan. The prospect was that they would ask Congress for emergency power in the crisis.

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The parties in the dispute have already had one three-month cooling off period imposed by President Reagan. Proposed now is an additional cooling-off period, or truce, imposed by Congress and the imposition by statute of contract recommendations made by a presidential emergency board. With the American economy in a touch-and-go state, a rail strike is simply not acceptable, it was said at the White House.

Deputy White House secretary Larry Speakes warned that a prolonged strike might cause ''serious disruptions.'' The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers' leader John Sytsma, said he would ''welcome'' a congressionally mandated cooling-off period, but only if it specifically required that locomotive engineers remain the highest paid workers on train crews. It is the insistence on this hierarchical position, which engineers believe is threatened, that is at the center of the dispute.

The 26,000 locomotive engineers, in the course of a wage dispute, insist that their 15 percent pay differential be retained. They argue that the engineer, like the pilot in an airplane crew, should get the most money. A presidential emergency board Aug. 19 gave a nod to the engineers' differential over trainmen and conductors, but held that the engineers should not have the right to strike during the length of the contract in order to maintain what amounts to a hierarchy.

Mr. Sytsma says train crew salaries now range from $28,000 to $50,000. With increased efficiency some crew members get higher wages and threaten to receive as much as engineers. Engineers want to enjoy the escalation, too, and to strike to get it if necessary. Management says they must be bound by an advance ''no strike'' agreement. The dispute has helped tie up the nation's freight trains.

The locomotive engineers comprise the one hold-out among 13 rail unions that began negotiating in August 1981. All the others have agreed to the no-strike clause, which expires July 1, 1984. However union solidarity has brought out an estimated 300,000 workers. The union did not strike Conrail, the big federally subsidized line. Another giant system, Amtrak, said the strike would halt a third of its passenger trains that operate south of Washington and west of Chicago. Dozens of regional lines are affected in the confused situation.

The strike affected urban commuters in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and other areas. Drivers used autos to get to work creating sizeable traffic and parking problems. In Boston the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority reported 25 to 50 percent increased ridership in commuter trains. In Chicago several commuter lines were shut by the strike and the Chicago Park District opened the Soldier Field Stadium parking lot to handle thousands of extra cars downtown.

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