Commuters Unite!

Iconfess. The only time I ever thought about labor issues before this week was during the baseball strike a few years back. And even then it was more inconvenience than concern.

But last weekend my apathy turned around and slapped me in the face. What should have been a routine weekend trip home to Long Island almost ended in one big deregulated nightmare.

When the Eastern machinists union decided to strike last week, it had all the makings of a 1981 air traffic controllers replay: union strikes, president orders them back to work, union refuses, president fires them, hires new workers, airlines continue normal service.

But unlike Reagan, President Bush refused to get involved in the strike. The machinists union asked Bush to call for a 30-day cooling-off period--a step which might have resulted in a negotiated settlement and the salvation of Eastern Airlines. But instead, Eastern filed for bankruptcy, the union made no tangible gains and thousands of travelers were left in the cold.

This was no zero-sum game. Every-one lost.

At first, I was fairly confident that the strike wouldn't affect me. I always take the Pan-Am shuttle anyway (that's where my frequent flyer miles are), and they said they were adding extra flights to accomodate the Eastern overflow. No problem.

BUT the potential for chaos posed by the machinist strike was nothing compared with that of secondary strikes by railroad and mass-transit workers.

Living at Harvard, where everything seems to be within walking distance, I had forgotten how dependent our society is on mass transit. This is especially true in New York, where everybody commutes.

If workers on Amtrak, the New York subways, the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and other commuter lines had struck, it could have meant, with apologies to R.E.M., the end of world as we know it.

I remember the last time the LIRR workers struck, in the late '70s. Everybody drove their cars part of the way into the city, parked and then walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. Sales of walking shoes skyrocketed. It was like a mass pilgrimage to Yuppie Mecca.

Long Islanders still shudder when the words LIRR and strike are mentioned in the same sentence. It's hard to imagine that this society of commuters would ever again endure the inconvenience of a transit strike. Suburban stock brokers and investment bankers might form a commuters' union and stage a counterstrike. I can imagine their slogans--"Commuters of the world unite! Break yours chains! Fight for your transit rights!" Conservative Yuppies would be transormed into radical revolutionaries.

Monday morning would come and Wall Street would be desolate, the first casualty of the commuter strike. Simultaneous strikes in other cities would paralyze the nation. Maybe even the world. All because the Eastern machinists wouldn't take a mere 50 percent pay cut. The nerve of them.

FORTUNATELY, the secondary strikes never materialized, the Monday morning commute was the same as any other, and there were plenty of seats on the 8:30 Pan-Am shuttle to Logan. But exaggerations aside, it was entirely conceivable that the secondary strikes could have brought New York to its knees.

It is interesting to consider: in an age in which we stress mass transit as the best alternative to environmentally destructive car exhaust, there are very few safeguards against widespread transportation paralysis.

This is not to say that transportation workers should not be allowed to strike. But even a little thing like a 30-day cooling-off period--which Bush stubbornly refused to grant--could prevent future strikes from deteriorating into mass chaos.

Unless the federal government begins to seriously consider better ways of resolving transportation labor disputes, the commuters of the world might have to unite after all.

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