Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail system, and Conrail, the dominant freight railroad in the Northeast, face the threat of a strike that most likely would begin in June.
Although a strike could come as early as April 4, with the expiration of a 30-day cooling-off period after mediation by a national panel, Amtrak management and union leaders expect a second mediation panel to be convened. That could delay any strike for at least two months.
"The day of reckoning is June 4," said Jed Dodd, general chairman of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes.
The union represents 2,500 Amtrak workers and 5,500 at Conrail.
Mr. Dodd said yesterday he expects a strike against Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. But, he hinted, his union might wait to strike Conrail.
A year ago, all the big rail unions struck the nation's major freight railroads. But Congress ordered them back to work and imposed a settlement based on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board, which is called to suggest solutions to contract problems in the rail and aviation industries.
That board could be called to try to settle the current disputes on April 4, with the expiration of the cooling off period that began after the National Mediation Board was unable to resolve them.
The union members who work for Amtrak and Conrail were not part of that national settlement, which the unions considered BTC skewed toward management. Mr. Dodd said he hopes to avoid giving Congress reason to intervene this time.
"I don't want to follow a strategy that will invite government intervention," he said. "We want a clean shot at individual railroad companies."
Although negotiations with Amtrak and Conrail are running along an identical schedule, the underlying disputes are distinct.
The union could strike one rail company and not the other. That would limit the economic impact of a walkout and reduce the government's incentive to intervene.
Amtrak already has reached agreements with unions representing 12,400 employees, about 60 percent of its unionized work force. But the passenger railroad is trying to get the remaining 40 percent, notably the maintenance union, to make concessions on work rules in exchange for an 18 percent raise over three years.
"I think the unions calling for a strike are very serious about it," said R. Clifford Black, an Amtrak spokesman.
The maintenance union maintains that Amtrak's work-rule demands would mean a 30 percent cut in overall compensation, while eliminating seniority rights that would leave union members vulnerable to management abuses, such as assigning union activists to the worst jobs.
A Conrail official would not discuss details of the dispute, which the union said also involves wages and work rules.