Federal mediators soon may declare impasse in Conrail's labor negotiations Union chief says strike may be in the offing


~TC Conrail Inc.'s negotiations with a key union may be halted by federal mediators as early as this week, a move that could result in a crippling strike at the Northeast's largest railroad.

Jedd Dodd, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way Employees, said yesterday the union will strike if an agreement isn't reached soon. The BMWE represents about 4,000 of Conrail's 22,000 employees.

Major sticking points include Conrail's desire to subcontract some maintenance work and sell off smaller lines to competitors. Conrail has said hiring outside contractors and selling off the lines is essential to its financial health.

"Whatever Conrail owns or has control over we intend to be a part of with this contract," Mr. Dodd said. "If not, we will strike."

Conrail officials couldn't be reached for comment.

Conrail, one of the two major railroads serving Baltimore, offers service from here throughout the Northeast and to the Midwest.

It operates the Bayview Intermodal yard, off Interstate 95, and handles containers and other cargo at Dundalk Marine Terminal, the port's largest public terminal.

Conrail also provides direct service to the port's largest coal terminal, Consolidation Coal Sales Co., and it also serves Rukert Terminals Corp., a private terminal handling a variety of dry bulk and breakbulk cargoes.

The Philadelphia-based Conrail and the BMWE have been trying to negotiate a new labor contract for more than a year. If federal mediators declare an impasse and halt the talks, the union would have to wait through a mandatory 30-day cooling-off period before it could take action, Mr. Dodd said.

Labor negotiations at railroads and airlines are subject to strict regulations by the federal government because transportation companies are considered essential to the nation's financial welfare. The regulations are designed to avoid strikes that could cripple commerce.

Anthony Hatch, a railroad analyst for NatWest Securities in New York, said a strike is likely. He predicted that the Clinton administration would step in and put an end to the strike if it grew too lengthy.

"If Conrail shut down, the auto industry would start to suffer, as well as every industry that ships in and out of the Northeast," Mr. Hatch said. "It would be quickly elevated to a national crisis, and the government just wouldn't allow that."

Mr. Dodd said a lengthy strike could be carried out without hurting other industries.

"There is not a ton of freight that Conrail moves that can't be moved by truck," he said.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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