Clinton appoints panel to help resolve Amtrak labor dispute Maintenance staff's plan to launch strike Sept. 5 is delayed; Railroad

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In an effort to head off a scheduled strike that could shut down much of the nation's passenger rail system, President Clinton appointed an emergency board yesterday to help resolve the dispute between Amtrak and its maintenance workers.

The move will delay a planned Sept. 5 walkout for almost two months. The board has 30 days to make recommendations, then Amtrak and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees will have an additional 30 days to review them.

The White House said Clinton decided to intervene because 500,000 commuters and intercity rail passengers would be affected by an Amtrak shutdown. In addition, Conrail's freight service along the busy Northeast corridor would be affected by an Amtrak strike, the administration said.

Amtrak operates 70 passenger trains a day in Maryland, including the MARC system's Penn Line between Baltimore's Penn Station and Washington's Union Station.

Earlier this month, the union rejected an arbitration offer from the National Mediation Board and launched a letter campaign, urging Clinton not to intervene. Under emergency procedures of the Railway Labor Act, the president has the authority to appoint a board, as he did in 1992 in another Amtrak labor dispute, to issue recommendations.

Clinton refused to use his presidential powers to stop a Teamsters union strike against United Parcel Service. That dispute, which ended this week, came under the jurisdiction of the Taft-Hartley Act. Clinton and his aides said the UPS strike did not threaten the health and security of the nation, which is the threshold for presidential intervention under Taft-Hartley.

The maintenance workers union criticized Clinton yesterday, saying he had "overstepped his authority under the Railway Labor Act."

"It is bad policy in general when workers in a democratic country have their only ability to defend themselves against the arbitrary conduct of management restricted by government intervention," said Jed Dodd, the union's general chairman.

The BMWE, which represents 2,300 Amtrak workers who maintain the railroad's tracks, bridges and terminals, is seeking raises to keep pace with inflation. The union argues that its wages are lower than those paid other railroad workers, including commuter rail employees who, like Amtrak, are affected by public funding.

But the financially struggling Amtrak says it needs changes in health benefits and work rules before it can agree to any pay raises. Amtrak, a public corporation formed by the federal government in 1970, has never made a profit.

Amtrak says the workers want wages comparable to those paid by the freight companies, which made $4 billion in profits last year.

In recent years, Amtrak has been forced to eliminate routes because of financial woes aggravated by cuts in federal support.

Pub Date: 8/22/97

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