National strikes have always provided large amounts of copy for American newspapers. Now that the papers have finished printing stories about the steel strike, they can turn their attention to the sick railroad industry, where adamant unions face an even more adamant management over the now-familiar issues of work rules and wage hikes.
Both sides refuse to accede in this battle, which has already started at the conference-table level. Item 1: Management has demanded an across-the-board wage slash for employees, while the Four Brotherhoods and the non-operating unions have insisted upon an unconditional boost. Item 2: The industry demands the right to change work rules hallowed by tradition and by the seemingly partial administration of the Railway Labor Act; labor categorically refuses any such changes. Item 3: Management has taken out six-month insurance to cover overhead in the event of a prolonged stoppage.
Even more than in the steel strike, the public has great concern with the length of the probable strike. At present, there seems to be no way by which to avoid it completely. Under terms of the Railway Labor Act, the government can delay the start of the strike a fair length of time; the President can invoke measures leading to an emergency negotiation board and can exert subtle pressures in other ways. The Taft-Hartley Act provides the final governmental check.
Yet the strength of these government safeguards will probably not be sufficient to protect the public from a crippling strike. Since unions and management have adopted such diametrically-opposed stands, any settlement will involve a substantial retreat by either or both sides--or even government action such as compulsory arbitration or temporary seizure of the railroads. Rail transportation cannot be halted for more than a week without economic consequences far more serious than the repercussions of the steel strike, at least in the opinion of many economists.
The major issue in the strike will not be wages but work rules. The Association of American Railroads--one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington--has started a nation-wide advertising campagin deploring the amount of feather-bedding throughout the nation. "Let us change the outdated work rules," the A.A.R. says, "and we can save $500 million per year, thus letting us compete more effectively and serve more efficiently."
Admittedly, many of the regulations currently enforced on the nation's railways smack of the days when passenger trains averaged 20 miles per hour and rail was the only convenient mode of transportation. Train crews now need travel only 100 miles to earn a full day's pay; an engineer making an eight-hour round trip between New York and Washington would earn 4 1/2 days' pay, while the 16 engineers and firemen who handle the Twentieth Century Limited earn 19.2 days' wages in a single night. The Interstate Commerce Commission has calculated railway employees work only 57 per cent of the time for which they are paid.
Management proposes to raise the mileage limit to 160 miles per day, thus cutting out many "division stops" and reducing the number of employees necessary. They also hope to save $200 million annually by eliminating the position of fireman, as was done after a prolonged strike on the Canadian Pacific Railway last year.
The railroad industry is sick, and its condition is becoming worse each year. With a series of confining regulations imposed by the ICC--rules far more effective at the turn of the century when the railroads were the only efficient means of transportation--the management must work under severe limitations. The ICC must approve changes in fares or in service; many a money-losing branch line still exists only through the grace of the Commission. And although the Transportation Act of 1958 supposedly gave the railroads a greater degree of freedom, the government still exercises a degree of control unparalleled in any other major industry.
The eventual settlement of the strike may come through compulsory arbitration by the government, according to Professor Charles R. Cherington, who often acts as a consultant in railroad disputes. Although railways carry only 50 per cent of the nation's freight now, this is a significant half which must move to keep the national economy from halting completely. Cherington does deem the management demand for complete overhaul of work rules "extreme," and proposes instead a renegotiation of individual jobs.
But the stage has been set for what could become one of the most important labor-management battles in recent years. Neither side will budge and, come a few months, the truckers of the nation will start to reap tremendous profits as the railroads grind to a stop. In the long run, however, the entire cost of the strike will be borne by the American tire cost of the strike will be borne by the American public--an all-too common occurrence these days.