Strike could halt most rail traffic July 24 After 2 years of talks, parties far apart on money

July 14, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- All major freight railroad lines and many passenger operations may come to a halt at 12: 01 a.m. July 24, when the last of a series of "cooling-off periods" in labor talks expires and a strike or lockout is permitted under federal law.

After nearly two years of talks, 35 major railroads, bargaining as a unit, have reached agreements with unions representing fewer than half their 145,000 unionized employees. Rail negotiations usually run down to the wire, but big differences remain with several groups, especially the track maintenance employees.

Some unions say they expect a strike or lockout, but they also say they think Congress would step in quickly. In the last national railroad shutdown, in 1992, Congress intervened a few hours later to enforce a settlement.

Amtrak might be able to keep running in its Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston because it owns most of that route, said Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary Mortimer Downey, "but probably not any of their national services that run on the freight lines."

In the New York area, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North's Harlem, Hudson and New Haven divisions own the tracks they run on and are not directly affected by the dispute. But they could be shut down if one of the striking unions chose to picket and commuter rail employees honored the picket lines.

Negotiations are under way or are scheduled with unions that have not reached a settlement.

Four years ago, work rules were the major issue; this time it is money.

The railroads are seeking to stick to a pattern they set with the largest union, the United Transportation Union, which includes conductors, brakemen and engineers.

Negotiators for that union reached a settlement with management, but the 45,000 workers voted it down. The two sides agreed to binding arbitration, and the arbitrators imposed the agreement the members had defeated.

According to the railroads, that settlement provides for a 1 percent signing bonus, increases of about 3 percent a year retroactive to last November and stretching until the end of this decade, and two other bonuses that would total 6.5 percent of pay.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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