Rail Strike's Impact

April 18, 1991

Eight thousand Maryland rail commuters, most bound for Baltimore or Washington, experienced firsthand the inconveniences of the national freight rail strike that began early yesterday morning. But their problems were minor compared with other rail-travelers' woes. Unions representing 250,000 workers vowed not to interfere with transit lines, but some management groups seem intent on adding to the disruption. Thus, cross-country trains moving east from the Pacific Coast were halted at Kansas City despite the unions' pledge. Thus, unions and commuter groups in Chicago had to go to court to keep the trains running for 75,000 commuters.

A presidential emergency board, called into action during a 90-day cooling-off period that just ended, has made recommendations for a contract that favors management's position. Some work rules, such as an archaic 108-mile rule for figuring a day's worth of work, would be changed to reflect modern technological realities. Staffing would go down and major productivity increases could come into play. Congress is expected to make those recommendations binding if the strike goes on, so rail managements expect to get major contract relief without having to bargain hard -- and pay up -- for it.

The unions, meanwhile, would like real collective bargaining. Their rank-and-file members are angry, after three years with no wage increases, and deeply suspicious of work-rule changes that will cost them jobs. That's why it is encouraging that a proposed congressional move to end the strike includes a 10-day period for rail unions and managements to raise disputed issues before a new, congressionally created board develops its own set of recommendations. That would be followed by another 10-day period for negotiations followed by 30 days to wrap up "loose ends" and submit remaining disputes to binding arbitration.

In acting swiftly, Congress recognized that the consequences of a strike would have been stark: 550,000 jobs put on hold; auto plants idled after two days; other industries such as paper, lumber, steel, coal mining, glass, plastics and chemicals shut down. National recovery set back. That's not a pretty prospect. More flexibility on both sides could have prevented things from reaching this point.

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