Washington — What happens when a crucial minority union group threatens to shut down the entire American economy? Why, the government intervenes and says ''No.'' That stops the disruption in its tracks - the railroad tracks, in this case.
That is what happened this week when 26,000 striking members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers abandoned their four-day jurisdictional strike, almost without protest, and everybody sighed and went back to work. The alternative was unacceptable. Already the dispute over what many believed was a relatively trivial status relationship in the key transportation hierarchy threatened to cost a billion dollars a day and send the faltering economy over a cliff.
Should the top working rank in the railroad hierarchy, the locomotive engineers, have an automatic pay differential to express their superiority? They argue that they are like the pilot on an airplane - the person in charge - and that if lesser ranks get automatic wage increases (like the trainmen under certain conditions if crews are reduced in size), they should, too.
Sitting in the cab of a rumbling locomotive with a 100-car grain train behind , America streaming by outside and the caboose almost out of sight, the engineers develop a feeling of command. Their union refused to accept a no-strike pledge approved by the lesser ranks unless their traditional wage differential was automatically preserved. To management, the argument was ridiculous: What, shut down the nation to require in writing a differential that would probably be preserved anyway? Yes, said the locomotive engineers. So the government intervened.
First, the President last July invoked a 60-day cooling off period that held an initial strike in abeyance. He appointed a special panel to investigate the dispute and hand down recommendations. The panel urged a settlement with a 28.8 percent wage increase spread over the 39 months of the contract and a no-strike clause until June 1984, when the contract expired. All unions except the engineers agreed; the latter argued that their differential would be undercut by a plan that gives extra pay to certain members of the United Transportation Union in exchange for a cut in crew size.
Then came the end of the cooling-off truce. The strike began at one minute after midnight Sunday. All brotherhoods struck. President Reagan said he hated to interfere, but America's freight system and some of the passenger system was shutting down, line by line. Congress must act. And Congress did: the Senate by voice vote approved emergency legislation Tuesday night and the House on Wednesday (383-17). Mr. Reagan signed the bill Sept. 22. He said he would ''prefer to keep the government out of the collective-bargaining process,'' but that ''vital national interests'' were at stake.
Not much harm has been done, say officials, and everything will be back to normal in a day or two.
At first the administration didn't believe a strike was likely on what it thought inadequate provocation and where other unions objected. Unemployment is high. Average pay of engineers is around $37,000 while the conductors, in the pecking order, average around $33,000. Spokesmen for engineers argued that without the strike-threat option, they might lose their status. Under the legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President, engineers must accept the recommendations of the special mediation board, including the controversial provision - no strikes.