AS the sun rose here yesterday, John Spears was one of three hardy souls to board a 6:10 Amtrak train to New York's Penn Station from Boston's Back Bay.
The architect had bought his ticket at 2 a.m. after hearing that a potential strike by Amtrak unions had been averted for now.
Although the Boston-Washington corridor, where Amtrak does the bulk of its passenger business, was open, a strike by the machinists' union shut down freight traffic nationwide, raising the prospect of intervention by the federal government.
A freight strike a year ago lasted less than a day before Congress and the White House intervened to protect the economy.
"They should step in quickly," Transportation Secretary Andrew Card said yesterday. "This is jeopardizing" the economy's recovery from recession, he added.
The White House has warned that a freight-rail shutdown could lead to 180,000 layoffs within three days in rail-dependent industries.
Hearings were held on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss possible federal action against the strike, but no action had been taken by press time.
At issue are wages and work rules for unions representing about 11,000 freight rail workers and 8,700 Amtrak workers.
Following the strike last April, railroads signed contracts with about 95 percent of the nation's 200,000 freight rail workers, who are represented by a dozen unions.
Those settlements followed guidelines from a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) set up after the strike.
Approaching the negotiating deadline of midnight Tuesday, attention was focused on union disputes with Amtrak and Consolidated Rail Corporation, known as Conrail. But the strike by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) came against CSX Corporation, one of the nation's largest freight shippers. The IAM was negotiating with all freight railroads.
"We had to shut down [freight traffic nationwide] because the system is so interconnected today that it's impossible to operate the system when something as large as CSX shuts down," says Frank Wilner, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.
But the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), representing rail maintenance workers, charges that the shutdown was unnecessary.
"The railroad lockout is nothing but a reckless ploy in their continuing effort to ... manufacture a crisis to bring about congressional intervention," BMWE president Mac Fleming says. The union is negotiating with both Amtrak and Conrail.
The disputes represent a tug-of-war in an industry that has boosted productivity in recent years, says Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "How are you going to divide up the gains" in company earnings is the question unions and managements are wrestling with, Professor Cappelli says.
Last year's agreements are allowing many carriers to cut crew sizes from three workers to two. But company managements "haven't gotten nearly as much change as they feel they need," Cappelli adds.
Conrail says union demands would mean doubling its BMWE work force to 7,000. This and the higher wage increases the BMWE is seeking would add $700 million in expenses over the next three years and cut earnings in half, Conrail says.
The union argues that Conrail's offer would wind up cutting employee earning power by 16 percent.
Similar wage issues are being argued in three sets of union negotiations: one between the IAM and freight railroads, one between Amtrak and six unions, plus the BMWE/Conrail dispute.
Three of the six unions that Amtrak is negotiating with had settled Tuesday, and the other parties extended talks until midnight tomorrow night.
The Tuesday negotiating deadline ended a 30-day cooling-off period following recommendations from a new PEB set up earlier this year. Congress could impose a settlement based on the PEB's recommendations.
In response to the strike, Amtrak has shut down all of its routes outside the Northeast corridor, because those trains run on tracks owned by freight carriers.
Most commuters, including those in Boston and New York, were not affected yesterday. Some lines ferrying commuters from Virginia and Maryland into Washington, D.C., could not operate because they run on CSX-owned rails.