Court order cuts Conrail strike short 3,400 employees in Northeast had walked out

Stoppage called illegal

Union complains of track work lost to outside contractors

August 15, 1998|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

About 3,400 Conrail Inc. workers went on strike yesterday, disrupting Amtrak passenger service and shutting down freight operations on rail lines throughout the Northeast and the Midwest until a federal judge halted the walkout.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way Employees walked off the job about 6 a.m. to protest the use of outside contractors to build about two miles of track in Marysville, Ohio.

"We're halting trains from Boston to St. Louis," Perry Geller, the union's general chairman, said yesterday morning.

"We anticipate within the next few hours that freight service in the entire Northeast will be coming to a halt."

Conrail, which operates 11,000 miles of track and moves about 7 percent of the nation's freight, contended that the strike was illegal.

The company said railroad labor laws require the union to follow certain procedures before striking.

"The issue today is not the stuff they're putting forth, but rather the fact that they chose to walk out and shut down the system illegally today," said Bob Sullivan, a Conrail spokesman.

Late yesterday, U.S. District Judge James T. Giles ordered the strikers to return to work and, in a temporary restraining order, scheduled a full hearing on Conrail's claim for Aug. 27.

"That buys us some time," said David Ganovski, the Maryland Department of Transportation's manager of freight services for the railroads.

He said he feared that a prolonged strike would hurt a broad range of industries, including coal, automobiles and poultry.

Geller said the workers, who build and maintain railroad tracks, decided to strike because the company failed to keep written promises not to hire nonunion workers to do the track work.

"They simply reneged and back-doored us by bringing in outside contractors," he said.

He said Conrail ignored an Aug. 3 letter in which the union asked Conrail to halt the project and eject the workers.

"Conrail created a situation that eliminated all options for resolution that could have avoided a strike when they ignored our written protests," Geller said.

About 30 workers in Baltimore joined the strike, setting up picket lines in three locations.

"The guys locally are in favor of the action," said Chuck Burkindine, vice chairman of the organization governing Local Lodge 3075 of the union. "We're tired of seeing our jobs lost to outside contractors and glad that we're finally taking a stand."

Amtrak officials said the strike forced it to cancel all or part of 14 of its roughly 260 daily train runs. John Wolf, a spokesman, said the Northeast corridor -- linking Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- was unaffected.

"The problems were generally confined in the regions of western Massachusetts, upstate New York and Michigan," he said.

MARC passenger service was unaffected, a spokeswoman said. Maryland transportation officials said the effect of the strike was minimal, largely because many freight operations are carried out late at night or early in the morning.

Gary Dadisman, general manager of Consolidated Coal Sales Co., which receives coal on Conrail trains and transfers it to ships for export, said the company usually gets 10,000 to 30,000 tons a day.

"We have inventory of about a half-million tons," he said. "So this would have to go on for several days to have a significant impact."

VTC Conrail, set up by Congress in 1976 to reorganize six bankrupt Northeast railroads, operates in 12 states in the Northeast and Midwest, Washington, D.C., and Quebec. It has about 23,500 employees. CSX and Norfolk Southern are buying parts of Conrail.

Conrail said the strike was costly to a range of customers, including automakers, chemical companies and manufacturers.

"You name it, we're involved in it," Sullivan said. "The important thing now is to get things up and running and restore things as quickly as we can. That's really going to be our focus now."

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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