• U.S.

Nation: The Day the Trains Stopped

6 minute read

ATER flashing warning signals for more than a year, four unions representing 80% of the railroads’ work force stalked off their jobs last week in a nationwide strike that raised an awesome specter. If the strike dragged on, the nation would face grave paralysis of its heavy-duty transportation lifelines. Fears grew that fresh fruits and vegetables, substantial amounts of which are shipped by rail, along with meat, milk, eggs and other perishables, would become increasingly scarce on store shelves. The halting of coal shipments brought concern about mine shutdowns and power failures. In Detroit, automakers worried that they might have to curtail production severely if denied rail service for more than a week.

Luckily, this time the strike was short-lived. The 425,000 workers stayed out for 18 anxious hours in defiance of presidential appeals to return and belated congressional legislation barring a strike until March. To soften labor’s resistance, Congress also took an extraordinary step: it ordered an immediate 13½% wage increase, part of it retroactive to last January, but let the unions’ archaic work rules stand unchallenged. Still unsatisfied, the chief labor spokesman, Charles Leslie Dennis, president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, called off the walkout only after a federal court ordered his union to pay $200,000 for every day it struck beyond the first 24 hours.

Bowing to Threats. In all, the strike was a forceful reminder that the nation is still heavily dependent on railroads. There was also the lingering fear that it could all happen again. As the walkout proved, even a brief suspension of service has an impact. Hundreds of thousands of commuters, for example, were forced to improvise means of getting to work and back. The post office, struggling through the Christmas rush, had to embargo all second, third and fourth class mail traveling more than 300 miles.

Though the stoppage had been coming for months, President Nixon waited until less than two days before the deadline to take the only official action left open to him: he placed the problem before Congress, which was racing to wrap up last-minute business before adjourning. To the Democrats, the President’s request for a simple 45-day no-strike law smacked too much of management bias. They immediately set about weighting the measure in favor of labor. “If we take away the right of these men to strike … we at least ought to give them the cost of living pay raise,” argued West Virginia Representative Harley Staggers. That Congress seemed to be bowing to the bullying strike threats of Dennis and others worried some legislators. “If we do this,” cautioned Senator Gordon Allott, a Colorado Republican, “we are going to be settling wage disputes in every industry in this country that is of sufficient size to have an influence on the national economy.”

Pajama Game. Within 36 hours of Nixon’s request, both houses had zipped through measures containing wage boosts. But even as the legislators hurriedly held a hectic House-Senate conference on Capitol Hill to patch up differences in the bills passed by each house, early-bird pickets were appearing only a few blocks away at Washington’s Union Station, the final House vote interrupted an impassioned if irrelevant time-filling defense of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by Lawrence Hogan, a Maryland Republican. The act was not signed by the President until two hours after the 12:01 a.m. Thursday deadline. Later, in nearby Chevy Chase, Md., U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt was rousted out of bed; still in his pajamas, he signed a no-strike injunction.

Far from resolving the dispute, the stopgap law merely requires that the railroads and unions keep bargaining until March 1 if necessary; at which point another strike can be called. The prime issue is money. The workers, who now average between $3.45 and $3.60 an hour, are demanding pay increases of between 40% and 45% over three years. The railroads have reluctantly offered to hike wages by an average of 37%, following the recommendation of a presidential emergency board. In return, the lines want an increase in productivity and an end to such wasteful featherbedding practices as changing train crews every 100 miles and paying crewmen extra money for operating a walkie-talkie. Many of these work rules compel the ailing lines to carry thousands of unneeded workers at an annual cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Burning C.L Despite the almost constant friction between the carriers and their unions, only two other nationwide rail strikes have been called in this century−in 1946 and 1967. Neither lasted more than two days. The disputes leading to last week’s strike go back 15 months, when the unions first made their demands. The National Mediation Board intervened, but gave up after eight months of fitfully trying to untangle the issues. Following a court order that forestalled a strike against three carriers last September, President Nixon appointed an emergency board to make recommendations for resolving the dispute. The board’s report, issued Nov. 9, set the clock ticking on the Railway Labor Act’s mandatory 30-day cooling-off period that ended last week. Having exhausted all the possibilities of existing law, the President had no choice but to ask Congress for new legislation to head off a full-fledged strike.

Last week’s strike stems in part from the discontent that now seems to pervade much of labor. In addition, union chiefs feel that they must take inflexible stands to impress the rank and file. Dennis, or “C.L.,” as he is known to union brothers, is up for re-election next year and desperately needs to make a strong showing. He has been pressed by a competing union: the more vigorous Teamsters have been successfully raiding the clerks’ membership. So disastrous were the results of a recent strike against Northwest Airlines that some clerks burned C.L. in effigy.

No one came out of the dispute with high marks. The Administration’s threat to bring in troops might have reassured the public, but it was regarded as bluster by union leaders who rightly doubt the Army’s ability to run the railroads effectively. In legislating a wage settlement, Congress unfairly undercut the bargaining position of the railroads. That precedent may well return to plague it−if, for example, a steel strike materializes next year.

The walkout also brought into sharp relief the flaws in the Railway Labor Act. The Administration has already asked for legislation that would enable the President to delay a rail strike, require partial operations of lines he deems essential, and impose a settlement subject to congressional veto. Up to now the White House has not pressed the matter; Congress has totally ignored it. After last week’s fiasco, the enactment of some such measure should have a high priority when the new Congress meets next year.

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