WASHINGTON -- Contract talks broke off last night between the country's biggest freight railroads and their unions, setting the stage for a nationwide strike today by about 200,000 rail workers.
Just after the midnight strike deadline passed, Mac A. Fleming, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, said union members would begin picketing at 7 a.m. today.
The talks collapsed after a day of fruitless negotiations.
"It seems everyone has gone home. They've stopped talking," Dan Lang, a vice president of the Association of American Railroads, said just before 9 p.m.
"It was not our intent to strike. We feel we have no choice," Larry McFather, the president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said at an afternoon news conference here. "In all likelihood, we'll be on strike at this time" today, he declared.
With the beginning of the strike, attention will shift away from the negotiations to Congress. Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the power to intervene by ordering the strikers back to work and imposing the terms of a settlement.
The pressure on Congress to act quickly will be great because of the tremendous potential for economic damage posed by the strike. The railroads carry about a third of the nation's intercity commerce, by weight, according to the Department of Transportation.
On Monday President Bush warned that a strike could "seriously disrupt" the nation's economy just as it is beginning to emerge from a recession. Mr. Bush's secretary of transportation, Samuel K. Skinner, said late last week that the administration was prepared to work closely with Congress to legislate a quick end to the strike.
Mr. Skinner told reporters at the Capitol yesterday that it might be possible to get a bill to the president by today.
However, Shawn Hanson, press aide to Representative Al Swift, D-Wash., said that while a bill to end the strike will begin moving through Congress this morning, it will not be ready for action on the House floor until tomorrow.
If Ms. Hanson is correct, the strike will probably be in its second day before a bill to end it could be ready for the president's signature.
Mr. Swift is chairman of the key House transportation subcommittee that would initiate a bill and report it to the full Energy and Commerce Committee. The Swift subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for 8 a.m.
Scheduled to testify are head management negotiator Charles I. Hopkins Jr., Union Pacific President Mike Walsh and the heads of two key rail unions: Fred Hardin of the United Transportation Union and Mr. Fleming. Other witnesses will be Mr. Skinner and Joshua Javits, chairman of the National Mediation Board.
The Bush administration has been saying it wants any legislation to follow closely the recommendations issued by a Presidential Emergency Board in January. The PEB, a three-member panel whose members were approved by both management and the unions, held hearings and studied the issues for about 10 months before submitting its report to the president.
Management, which says it is not entirely happy with the recommendations, has urged the unions to adopt them as a reasonable compromise. Three of the 10 unions have accepted tentative agreements based on the PEB recommendations.
The remaining unions insist that the PEB proposals favor management on the basic issues of wages, work rules and health benefits.
There has been some uncertainty whether the unions would strike just one railroad, all the railroads, or move strike actions from one road to another in what is known as a rolling strike.
Congress' options in rail dispute
Based on actions taken in the past, Congress could:
* Do nothing. Congress is under no legal obligation to take action. And rail unions have complained that a rush to a congressionally imposed settlements disarms them of their most effective weapon: a strike.
* Require an additional "cooling-off" period of 20 to 90 days, during which both sides would be required to refrain from unilateral actions such as a strike or lockout. Congress has used this approach at least nine times, sometimes to give more time to negotiate a settlement but more often to give itself more time to draft a law imposing one.
* Establish an advisory board in connection with an extension of the cooling-off period to make recommendations to Congress on a settlement. This was first done in a 1986 strike against the Maine Central Railroad that was spreading to other parts of the country.
* Require binding arbitration and an extension of the cooling-off period. That approach was used in 1963 to settle a dispute over the size of train crews and in the Maine Central strike to settle issues not resolved by the presidential emergency and congressional advisory boards.
* Impose a specific settlement, usually based on the recommendations of the presidential emergency board. This has been used at least six times, including a 1982 strike by locomotive engineers and the Maine Central strike. However, Congress on occasion has rejected the recommendations and imposed settlements based on other factors.
#Source: Associated Press