Strike/Lockout on the Rails


This country cannot, will not and should not tolerate a prolonged shutdown of its rail system. It would undercut prospects for economic recovery, throw millions of people out of work, shut down factories, endanger the marketing of crops and livestock and interfere with rail commuters.

What's more, such damage from the current strike/lockout would be less the product of a justifiable shutdown of a vital industry and more the result of an elaborate minuet in which the current election campaign provides the background music. Since both labor and management know the dance is bound to come to an early halt, both sides are attempting to manipulate the legal/political situation for maximum advantage.

When Congress acts, and act it will even though Democratic leaders refuse to be rushed by the Republican White House, the current dispute over wages and work rules could well be sent to binding arbitration, always a shake of the dice for the parties involved.

Railroad management, which is quite comfortable with a pattern contract accepted a year ago by some unions not involved in the current dispute, deliberately pushed for a quick showdown yesterday by closing all freight rail lines even though only CSX was struck. The unions, in turn, sought to string things out in the hope that Congress, to avoid calamity, would set forces in motion leading to a more favorable settlement. It is not coincidental that Amtrak's passenger service in the Boston-to-Washington corridor was given a reprieve, much to the relief of Capitol Hill denizens.

There is considerable law on the books, complete with elaborate negotiation machinery, to prevent the nation from being crippled by railroad disputes. It has been crafted over the years not to favor one side or the other but to provide a reasonably even-handed mechanism to avoid shutdowns that impact heavily on many, many more workers and industries that those directly involved. An industrial port city like Baltimore, with its concentrations of steel, auto and chemical industries plus bulk grain and coal shipments is always hard hit.

It is perfectly within bounds for unions to reject the recommendations of presidential panels and strike; likewise for management to counter by forcing a showdown. What would not be acceptable would be prolonged jousting by Congress and the White House for political points while the economy goes down the tubes. The law provides for binding arbitration. Let it commence -- and fast.

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