Big Apple Commuters Brace for Rail Strike


TOM COHEN plans to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus chartered by his company. John Crichton will try to work at home. And Kevin La Follette plans to ''live out of a bag'' at a friend's house in Manhattan.

All three commuters are making contingency plans if the unions working on Metro-North, the rail line that services the northern New York suburbs of Westchester County and Fairfield County, Conn., go on strike Sunday.

In offices throughout the city, some 200,000 daily riders are scrambling to find alternative transportation or other places to work. Almost everyone concedes that a strike will be an Empire State-sized inconvenience.

''It will be miserable,'' predicts Mr. Cohen, who has to find a way to juggle his new work schedule and get his two children to and from day care.

Longtime New York commuters are accustomed to strikes. In 1972 to '73, unions struck Metro-North for 50 days, in 1983 for six weeks, and in 1987 for 11 days.

Although other cities, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, have had commuter-rail strikes, ''all things considered, New York has it the worst,'' says Charles Rehmus, a former dean of the Cornell University School of Industrial Relations, now an arbitrator in San Diego.

Mr. Rehmus, an expert on railway unions, says there have been no significant strikes in the nation for the last three to four years. Although Congress has not been motivated to intervene in commuter-rail strikes, Rehmus says it has headed off 16 or 17 intercity freight strikes over the last 30 years.

Last year, officials of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the parent of Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), had hoped Congress would intervene after LIRR workers struck for two days. But after lukewarm congressional interest in the strike and after then-Gov. Mario Cuomo pressured the MTA to avoid a strike during an election year, the MTA gave the LIRR workers a 8.7 percent pay increase over 26 months.

Metro-North workers, paid less than LIRR employees for the same work, are seeking equality. Metro-North management has offered a wage freeze and a 3.5 percent increase in 1997. Management also wants work-rule concessions. The chairman of the National Mediation Board started negotiations yesterday. Those talks are expected to continue until the Sunday deadline.

Some union officials say the MTA wants to force a strike, hoping that the Republican-controlled Congress will remove the MTA from the provisions of the Federal Railway Labor Act. That act permits strikes after lengthy negotiations. The unions would then be covered under state laws, which prohibit strikes.

Metro-North officials are warning commuters that they can expect delays and aggravation. For example, only 40 to 50 percent of the daily commuters can be served by alternative travel arrangements, such as unairconditioned school buses that will haul people to New York subway stops. Once the bus deposits customers at the subway stop, the commuters face another 30- to 40-minute subway ride.

The city's Department of Transportation (DOT) is gearing up for the strike as well. DOT plans constant aerial surveys of traffic conditions and minute-by-minute reports to radio stations. DOT will have traffic police at key intersections to try to keep as many as 16,000 extra vehicles moving.

''We implore the public to leave their cars at home - the fact is the roads are going to be bad,'' says Allan Fromberg, a DOT spokesman.

As a result of the warnings, many commuters expect long delays getting into the city. George Goess, who commutes in from Croton Harmon, N.Y., expects his daily travel time to double to 2-1/2 hours each way. But he plans to be at his computer job anyway.

''If you gotta work, you gotta work,'' he says.

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