FOR the next month, America's freight trains will run smoothly while railroad managements and unions try to end a four-year standoff in three separate contract disputes.
Early last Friday, President Bush signed legislation to end a nationwide rail shutdown, ending worries that auto makers would have to idle their plants and that McDonald's would run out of French fries. But some observers say the move was an unnecessary intervention in the bargaining process.
Audrey Freedman, a labor economist, notes that only one carrier had been struck: CSX Corporation. When the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Union struck CSX at 12:01 a.m. last Wednesday, the nation's other freight carriers decided to stop their service. The picketing of the nation's third-largest carrier, they argued, would disrupt the flow of goods nationwide.
"I'm really appalled that nobody [in Congress] said, `This would not have been a national emergency but for the action of management,' " says Ms. Freedman, who is president of Manpower Plus, a human-resources consulting firm in New York.
She says Congress could have ordered the other 39 railroads back into business and allowed talks to continue during a "cooling-off" period.
"Most of CSX's lines are paralleled" by other rail routes, Freedman says. "I doubt if it would have done a lot of damage" to the economy to let the strike go on.
Instead, Congress voted to impose a 35-day cooling off period during which all 40 carriers go back to work and negotiations continue. If settlements have not been reached by that time, an arbitrator from the National Mediation Board will choose either labor's or management's final offer.
Bush would have three days to approve the decision. If he did not, unions would be free to strike, and managements to lock workers out again.
This arbitration approach, used in professional baseball, gives the opposing sides an incentive to come closer together.
The vote late Thursday night was 248-140 in the House and 87-6 in the Senate. It reinforces the impression that Democratic Party support for organized labor may no longer be as strong as it once was.
Bill Clinton, who will shortly become the Democratic nominee for president, has distanced himself from labor by supporting a United States-Mexico free-trade agreement, which unions say would cost thousands of US jobs.
Some Capitol Hill Democrats spoke out strongly for the railroad workers.
"We don't belong in this dispute," said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio Thursday.
Steve Fountain, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) says, "We feel like we had our right to strike taken away."
Mr. Freedman, though criticizing Congress, says railroad managements "have got to keep getting changes in work rules" from unions if they are to compete successfully with the trucking industry.
Railroads used to ship more than 80 percent of the nation's inter-city freight; they now ship about 35 percent. But concessions from unions in recent years have helped the industry come back. That kind of change "has to continue, and I think it will," Freedman says.
THE current disputes together involve about 5 percent of all freight rail workers and less than one-third of Amtrak's passenger-line staff.
There are three sets of talks: the IAM with 40 freight railroads, the BMWE with Consolidated Rail Corporation, and three unions with Amtrak. The talks center around wages, work rules - which affect working conditions and staffing levels - and health-care benefits.
"It's been our experience that arbitrators tend to favor management over unions," Mr. Fountain says. The industry, meanwhile, says unions have shown little flexibility in talks to date. "They haven't moved an inch," says Thomas White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
David Stack, spokesman for the IAM, criticizes the railroad companies for favoring lump-sum payments instead of traditional wage Bincreases because lump-sum payments do not add to the salary on which pension payments will ultimately be based.
"These folks haven't had a pay raise in 4 1/2 years," Stack says.
He adds that union employees should not have to pay a portion of health-care benefits. In many industries, managements facing soaring health-care costs are pushing some of the burden onto employees.
The machinists also argue they should get pay comparable to their union brethren in the airline industry. Currently IAM employees for railroads get about $14 an hour, versus about $20 for IAM airline workers. But the AAR says the two jobs are not comparable, and that IAM railworkers receive generous benefits that put them in the top 5 percent of all US industry.
Without benefits, IAM workers make an average of $32,566, versus $25,889 for the average worker in US industry as a whole, White says. Benefits would add another $15,000 to IAM wages, but only $5,000 to the US industry average.
"They're hardly underpayed," White says.