Some 8,000 Maryland rail commuters today were caught in a struggle between railway unions and management, each side blaming the other for the first nationwide rail strike in nearly 10 years. The strike hit the CSX and Conrail lines in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Congress today convened hearings to try to put an early end to the strike, which within days could force the layoffs of tens of thousands of workers, including some 3,500 employees at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway.
Many commuters here switched over to Penn Station, the terminal for Amtrak, which the strike did not affect throughout the northeast corridor from Washington to Boston.
At Penn Station commuters said they were prepared for the strike and were ready for delays, crowded trains and other inconveniences it may bring.
Carol Stokes, who works for a Washington accounting firm and normally takes a Maryland Rail Commuter train from Camden Station to Union Station in Washington, said she came directly to Penn Station for the commute by Amtrak.
"I woke up early and got here early because I didn't know what hardships the strike has brought," said Stokes, 35, of northeast Baltimore. "So far there has been none."
State Mass Transit Administration buses began arriving at Camden Station about 5 a.m. to take MARC commuters to Penn Station. Beth Robinson, an MTA customer community relations officer, said four buses shuttled about a dozen passengers between the two depots.
"We really expected it to be quiet, but we didn't want to leave anyone stranded," Robinson said. She said the buses also would shuttle passengers from Penn Station to Camden Station during evening rush hour.
The striking unions had offered to work on passenger lines, but they were not given the chance here.
CSX Transportation Inc. said it was nervous about passenger safety and the reliability of service and called its engineers last night, telling them not to operate MARC trains between Camden Station and Washington and between Brunswick and Washington today. The state contracts both of those services to CSX.
Two conductors who had prepared to work the MARC line between Baltimore and Washington today instead staffed a picket line at the Riverside rail yard off Fort Avenue.
"They locked us out," said Kenny Foster, one of the conductors.
"We got a lot of friends out there. It's making them suffer and it's not our fault," said B.C. Young, a 40-year railroad veteran, who also was picketing at Riverside. Young and Foster said they were called by CSX representatives about 10:45 last night and told their jobs had been "annulled."
John Shifflett, district chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Baltimore, said the company's refusal to operate the passenger lines was a ploy to force the unions to accept the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board.
"The underlying reason is they're trying to get Congress to put us back to work," Shifflett said today.
But CSX spokeswoman Andrea Just said the company was only looking after the passengers. "If we have a picket line, we have no idea who, where or how many workers would report," Just said. "It's better not running, for the safety of the passengers."
Spokesmen at the management organization, Association of American Railroads, and at the union group, Railway Labor Executives Association, said the cancellation of the MARC service was the only instance that they knew of in which a rail company shut down a line. Union members operated commuter lines in Chicago and passenger lines reportedly operated without incident in Boston and New York.
Federal Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner told a Congressional subcommittee today he was "cautiously optimistic" that a bill to end the strike would be ready for signing by tomorrow morning.
Subcommittee Chairman Al Swift, D-Wash., said he hoped the full committee would vote on legislation by this afternoon.
Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would consider rail legislation, said Congress faces three likely options -- drafting legislation that would outline a process to resolve the dispute, implementing the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board, or passing legislation that modifies those PEB recommendations.
Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the power to force the unions back to work and to impose the terms of a settlement. Some experts were predicting Congress probably would use the recommendations of the PEB report issued Jan. 15 after 10 months of study.
Unions were highly critical of the report, saying it did not give workers enough to make up for wage freezes of the past.
The board recommended that railroad workers get a lump sum payment of $2,000 when the contract is signed, presumably to make up for the wage freeze that has occurred since July 1988 when the old contract expired, and a 3 percent general wage increase beginning July 1 this year.
Workers would then get a series of lump sum payments over the next several years, plus another 3 percent general wage increase in July 1993 and a 4 percent increase in 1994.
Workers are contending the wage increases are too low and are balking at paying part of their health insurance. Negotiations ended at midnight with most rail labor unions failing to reach an agreement.
The strike affects about 235,000 rail employees of the nation's 10 biggest railroads.
Picket lines went up at 7 a.m. at Conrail and CSX freight yards here. The atmosphere on the line was subdued. Union members, wearing black and white printed signs announcing the strike, stood in small groups sipping coffee and talking with one another.
"I'm not optimistic," said Jack Cavey, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and an electrician for the MARC and CSX lines.
While no short-term effect is expected, the strike could begin affected other industries by next week. Terry Youngerman, a spokesman at the local GM plant, said the plant would exhaust its inventory of major parts by the end of the week if the strike isn't settled.
Other local companies that depend on rail said a short strike would have limited impact on their businesses.
A spokesman for Consolidated Coal Sales Co. said two to six coal-laden trains arrive at the coal yard each day. There is a stockpile that can be loaded onto ships, but the spokesman could not say when it would be exhausted.
Representatives at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Bethlehem Steel Corp. also said they had sufficient coal inventories to withstand the rail strike for a number of weeks.