On the wrong track?
Washington — The strike of locomotive engineers in the nation's railroads, and the simultaneous United Steel Workers convention in Atlantic City may determine the industrial mood in America as it experiences the worst recession since the 1930 's. Unemployment presently stands at 9.8 percent, and steel production, off 61.5 percent of capacity, is the lowest on record.
Despite unemployment, which reaches 52.6 percent for black teenagers - the highest rate since the Great Depression - the country has come through the summer with little social disturbance. Many hope that the worst of the downturn is over. The pattern may be set by events now developing.
Applying pressure against some 28,000 striking railroad locomotive engineers, Cabinet members threaten to ask Congress for new anti-strike legislation. The walkout, beginning Sept. 19, crippled US rail traffic. It began at the expiration of a 60 day ''cooling off'' period earlier imposed by Mr. Reagan.
Industry contracts with the other twelve rail unions include a ''no strike'' clause and management demands that this be extended to the locomotive engineers. It means that the union could not call a strike to get additional pay if crew sizes change. Back agreements signed in 1975 and 1978 waived this provision by industry.
The walkout caught many areas by surprise and brought immediate administration reaction. It affects all of the nation's freight service except Conrail, the Northeast carrier, and some passenger lines. Intensive union management negotiations continued here for seven hours after the strike began, but ultimately collapsed.
Unions normally reduce strikes during economic slumps. The size of the American labor movement has been falling behind population growth for some years. What happens to the engineers contract will be considered significant, as will the meeting of the United Steel Workers. About a third of the steel workers are currently laid off, and the industry is operating at only forty percent capacity. Hard times and unemployment have reduced trade union ranks, but have also increased political activity, observers here belive. Organized labor is expected to make its dissatisfaction felt in the November election.
President Reagan notes that inflation has been reduced and the interest rate for new homes has come down. ''Things are getting better,'' is his slogan.
On the other hand, Democrats note the bad news as follows:
* Unemployment at 10.8 million is the highest since 1934. For adult men (8.8 percent), it is the highest since the Great Depression. This is also true for teenagers - 24.18% in July.
* Real take-home pay in private industry is $146.10 per week, in 1977 dollars , lowest since 1960.
* Business failures are the highest since 1961.
* Net farm income after inflation adjustment is the lowest since 1932, Democrats argue.
* Corporate mergers and aquisitions reached 2,314 in 1981. That's ''the highest on record,'' according to the Democrats.