WHEN it comes to strikes, the United States government rarely intervenes. It sat out the huge walkout by thousands of Eastern Airline workers a few years ago. It didn't step into the nationwide bus drivers strike at Greyhound.
Yet, within hours of this week's nationwide railroad walkout, Congress and the White House were falling over each other to find a solution. Not since the air-traffic controllers strike in 1981 has the US government taken such a large and direct role in settling a major labor dispute.
After swift action by Congress, President Bush was awakened Thursday morning to sign legislation ending the one-day strike.
Why do railroads get such special treatment?
For one thing, railroads are more important economically. They carry more than a third of US inter-city freight (according to a measure known as ton-miles). The Association of American Railroads claims the industry carries 60 percent of the nation's coal and automobiles.
A nationwide rail stoppage would hurt the economy far more and far faster than either inter-city buses (which are less significant) or airlines (where shippers can use alternative airlines).
"The ramifications of this are much more important" than an airline or bus strike, says Allan Zarembski, a railroad industry consultant in Cherry Hill, N.J. Steel and automakers would have to lay off workers almost immediately if railroads couldn't replenish their lean inventories. According to one estimate, 500,000 to 1 million workers could be laid off in other industries within two weeks of a strike.
Railroad officials praised Congress's quick work to end the shutdown.
"We're gratified that the Congress and President Bush have moved so quickly to end the strike," said Mike Walsh, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. "Trains will be moving again very soon."
Labor unions displeased
Labor unions, however, were unhappy with the measure.
Some rail unions suggest that the White House wanted to convince Congress to move quickly for political reasons. Unions had worried than in a crisis atmosphere, Congress would force a settlement along the lines already proposed by a presidential emergency board - even though the 11 striking rail unions found its recommendations unpalatable. Many say the measure now precludes them from opening negotiations on new issues.
The unions did everything possible to avoid creating a crisis atmosphere, says Steve FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. They promised not to disrupt commuter service so that Congress could create its own solution rather than follow the recommendations of the presidential emergency board.
The legislation, worked out after a day of intense negotiations between lawmakers and the White House, would order unions back on the job under current work rules.
A three-member panel would be appointed to review some outstanding issues between carriers and workers and would have 65 days to impose agreements.
Dispute has dragged on
Except for a few points around the country, commuter trains operated normally. The passenger traffic of Amtrak was severely disrupted outside of the northeastern US. The carrier, which is not involved in the dispute, estimated the strike disrupted the travel of some 25,000 of its inter-city passengers. Many trains didn't roll because Amtrak travels over freight lines owned by companies that had striking workers.
The dispute has dragged on for three years now. Key areas of the dispute centered around work rules and health-care benefits. Each of the 11 unions have different issues.
Generally speaking, however, management wants to cut back health benefits and relax union work rules. Employees are resisting those changes and calling for bigger pay increases than management has offered.
The main dispute is between the railroads and the United Transportation Union (UTU), which represents many of the workers that management wants to get rid of.
"The recommendations of the presidential emergency board are an awful lot for the UTU to swallow," says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. It might actually be easier for the union leadership to have some of the board's recommendations forced on them by Congress rather than agreeing to them in bargaining, he adds.