Amtrak unions renew strike threat after judge refuses to intervene

Workers' 1-day walkout would protest funding, but not during holidays

December 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Amtrak unions renewed a threat yesterday to stage a one-day walkout to protest the rail system's tenuous financial health, after a federal judge rejected management's request to block the strike.

But Charles Moneypenny, director of the Transport Workers Union's railroad division, said the unions "almost certainly" would not strike during the holiday season.

"The unions need to get together and decide what our next step will be, including the possibility of a one-day walkout," he said. "But it's highly improbable that we would disrupt holiday travel."

Amtrak officials have said that a walkout would shut down Amtrak's nationwide system.

The unions - representing 7,000 to 8,000 of the passenger railroad's 21,000 employees, including rail-car and track repairmen, engineers and brake inspectors - said the walkout was intended to bring attention to what they call the railroad's chronic under-funding.

Originally, the Bush administration proposed a $900 million subsidy - half of what Amtrak had requested - for fiscal year 2004 that began Oct. 1.

But congressional leaders and the White House later agreed to give Amtrak $1.22 billion, a $180 million increase from the previous year. Black said $1.22 billion is enough to keep the railroad running another year.

However, Moneypenny said, the walkout protest was still justified because Amtrak President David Gunn has warned that any funding below $1.8 billion could result in a major disruption or accident within a year.

"We believe Gunn was right, and if his predictions come true - and I can only pray that they don't - at least we can say that the unions stood up and did everything they could to get help," he said.

Amtrak officials had argued in court that the 1926 Railway Labor Act requires the unions to negotiate with the company to settle the grievances before going on strike. In addition, Amtrak argued that the strike would harm the economy.

But the unions said that the strike was allowed under federal law and that Amtrak employees had a First Amendment right to stop work to make a statement on a political debate.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson, in his ruling issued Wednesday and released yesterday, sided with the unions.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said the railroad has appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

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