Rail strike traps area commuters 8,000 seeking alternate transportation.

April 17, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

Some 8,000 Maryland rail commuters today were caught in a struggle between railway unions and management, who each blamed the other for the first nationwide rail strike in nearly 10 years.

The unions had said their members would continue to work on passenger lines, but, locally, they were not given the chance.

CSX Transportation, nervous over passenger safety and the reliability of service, called its engineers last night and told them that MARC trains on the Camden and Brunswick lines would not operate today.

John Shifflett, district chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Baltimore, said the company's refusal to operate the passenger lines was a ploy to force the unions to accept the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board.

"The underlying reason is they're trying to get Congress to put us back to work," Shifflett said today.

But CSX spokeswoman Andrea Just said the company was only looking after the passengers. "If we have a picket line, we have no idea, who, where or how many workers would report," Just said. "It's better not running for the safety of the passengers."

Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said the state had lined up buses at stations on the Brunswick and Camden lines to take passengers to stations along the Penn Line, which is operating.

Meanwhile, Congress was expected to convene hearings today to put a quick end to the strike, which within days could force the layoffs of tens of thousands of workers, including some 3,500 employees at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway.

Negotiators for both labor and management were scheduled to testify before Congress, as was Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner.

A committee vote on legislation to stop the strike could come soon afterward. Congress' goal was to have the measure on President Bush's desk by Friday.

Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would consider rail legislation, said he expected the dispute to be resolved before the weekend. He said Congress faces three likely options -- drafting legislation that would outline a process to resolve the dispute, implementing the recommendations legislation of the President Employment Board report, or passing legislation that modifies those PEB recommendations.

Picket lines were expected to go up at 7 a.m. after negotiations broke down last night. The unions and rail companies have been trying to reach a contract agreement for three years.

Three years of negotiations ended at midnight with most rail labor unions failing to reach an agreement. Both sides said they offered new proposals in the waning hours of bargaining. About 235,000 rail employees of the nation's 10 biggest railroads are free to strike.

A prolonged strike could cripple the economy, causing layoffs of some 500,000 workers whose jobs rely on rail transportation. Terry Youngerman, a spokesman at the local GM plant, said the plant would exhaust its inventory of major parts by the end of the week if the rail strike isn't settled. Other local companies that depend on rail said a short strike would have limited impact on their businesses.

A spokesman for Consolidated Coal Sales Co. said two to six coal-laden trains arrive at the coal yard each day. Currently, there is a stockpile that can be loaded onto ships, but eventually those stockpiles would be depleted. The spokesman could not say when that would be.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. said it has several month's supply of coal at its coal-burning facilities and would not be immediately affected by a rail strike.

Bethlehem Steel also said it has a large inventory of raw materials and would not feel the impact of a strike for weeks.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the power to force the unions back to work and to impose the terms of a settlement. Some experts were predicting that Congress probably would use the recommendation of a Presidential Emergency Board report issued Jan. 15 after 10 months of study.

The PEB is part of the apparatus of government mediation and intervention set up under the Railway Labor Act. When Congress has intervened in the past, it has closely followed PEB recommendations.

Leaders of three unions have agreed to terms similar to those recommended by the presidential commission.

A key issue in the negotiations is how closely railroad workers' contracts should mirror the board's report. That study recommended yearly pay boosts for workers, but also said they should start chipping in for health care costs.

Unions were highly critical of the report, saying it did not give workers enough to make up for wage freezes of the past.

The two sides disagree on what figures to use when discussing wages. Management contends rail workers receive an average total compensation package worth about $56,000 a year and says that's far out of line with other industrial workers. The union says a typical rail worker makes $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

The board recommended that railroad workers get a lump sum payment of $2,000 when the contract is signed, presumably to make up for the wage freeze that has occurred since July 1988 when the old contract expired, and a 3 percent general wage increase beginning July 1 of this year.

Workers would then get a series of lump sum payments over the next several years, plus another 3 percent general wage increase in July 1993 and a 4 percent increase in 1994.

A four-day rail strike in 1982 effectively shut down the nation's rail system and stalled passenger trains around the country. At the time, officials estimated the walkout cost the U.S. economy up to $1 billion a day.

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