WASHINGTON -- Congress, fearing disruptions in movement of agricultural commodities and other raw materials and manufactured items, appears to be preparing to put a quick end to a freight railroad strike that could begin at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
While some of the 11 unions representing 95 percent of U.S. rail workers reportedly are inching close to an agreement with the carriers, a strike is a near certainty unless all of the labor organizations reach agreement with management.
So far, Congress has been careful to stay out of the negotiations for fear of poisoning any last-minute deals between the railroads and unions. In fact, talks on some of the issues have been dragging on since 1984.
But Congress has had a history of not allowing rail strikes to paralyze the country's transportation network, especially when public transportation is involved, and indications are that lawmakers would do the same next week in the event of a strike.
Just this week, Representative John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, warned colleagues in a letter to expect fast action in the event of a strike.
The letter, dated April 8 and also signed by Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Al Swift, D-Wash., informed other committee members that "at any time on or after 12:01 a.m. EDT on Apr. 17, the subcommittee and/or full committee will be subject to meeting. . . ."
Mr. Dingell also said that "in light of time constraints" it might be necessary to circumvent the normal procedures of the House to quickly pass a bill to impose a strike settlement.
Fearful of influencing the negotiations, however, Mr. Dingell and Mr. Swift wrote, "We have no plans at this time to circulate any legislative proposals prior to April 17."
A political consideration also may prompt Democrats to move xTC quickly on a bill to end the strike, one railroad labor source said. "Members [Democrats] were beaten over the head for their Persian Gulf votes. The last thing they'll want is to be seen as indecisive" on ending a rail disruption, the source said.
Congress would feel even more pressured if the shutdown were to spill over to commuter rail lines.
Quick legislative action is feared by the unions, who speculate lawmakers simply would impose recommendations made earlier this year by a presidential emergency board formed after the National Mediation Board declared an impasse in the talks in February 1990. The unions largely have rejected the proposals.