Although the Civil Rights March received more publicity last August 28, another unique event took place in Washington the same day: Congress, for the first time, imposed arbitration in a peacetime labor dispute. Its action followed nearly four years of unsuccessful negotiation between railroad management and labor.
In simplest terms, the issue was one which many other industries must confront in seeking automation. What should become of the men displaced by machines? Because of the change from steam to diesel engines, management contends that firemen are no longer needed. By employing these and other unnecessary men the railroads lose $600 million annually. Beset with competition from barges, trucks, and pipelines, management believes that the railroads cannot sustain these costs and survive. The unions, in opposing plans to eliminate the alleged waste of manpower, voice their concern for the welfare of their members.
During the summer of 1960, both sides agreed to the appointment of a fifteen-man Presidential commission (five men each from labor and management and five neutrals, including John T. Dunlop, professor of Economics). This body studied the question for thirteen months before issuing a lengthy report which, in essence, considered firemen unnecessary on all except passenger trains. But the report also expressed a concern for those men now holding jobs. As a result, the Commission suggested the gradual elimination of most of their positions through attrition, while recommending benefits for those men with less seniority, who were to be removed.
Management agreed to negotiate within the limits of the Commission's report. The rail unions refused. Therefore, last spring a nation-wide rail strike was threatened and President Kennedy, under procedures authorized by the National Railway Labor Act, appointed an impartial three-man emergency board. Since it already had access to the Commission's monumental report, the board spent little time fact-finding and instead attempted to mediate the dispute. In the latter role it failed, and in its subsequent report the board followed the lines set up by the Presidential Commission. Once again management agreed to negotiate within the bounds of the report, but labor again refused. After a period of fruitless negotiations another strike was threatened. The matter was finally sent to Congress which established an arbitration board composed of representatives from both labor and management and three impartial members, including James J. Healy, professor of Industrial Relations.
Last week the arbitration board announced its decision on the two central issues, removal of firemen and train crew reduction. With both union representatives dissenting, the board ruled to eliminate 90 percent of the firemen's jobs. But the means of removal will not be harsh. Only 3,500 of 40,000 firemen will actually be dismissed, and they will receive partial benefits while seeking new jobs. The majority will remain in their jobs until they die, retire, quit, or are offered a comparable position by their railroad. The board also established procedures for eliminating other excess jobs on train crews, and for providing similar safeguards for most long-term employees.
Yet, in the face of the unanimity of all eleven impartial, labor-management experts, the unions still refuse to accept the decision. They plan to challenge both the decision and the law under which it was made in the courts. Their attempts will probably fail, but their intransigence may undermine future cooperation between labor and management in adjusting to needed technological change.
Moreover, even if the law is upheld in court, the dispute will not be completely settled. Many "minor" issues must still be negotiated and the unions will be free to strike over these peripheral questions on February 25. The Brotherhoods' recent history of pat refusals to negotiate within the bounds of the reports of impartial commissions suggests that once again the thorny question will be thrown into Congress. Not only would this weaken public confidence in collective bargaining, but in a year of vital political importance, the railroad dispute would jam up legislation left over from this session.
The recent decision of the Federal arbitration panel combines an understanding of the railroads' plight with a sympathy for the workers involved. Useless positions must be abolished, but the men now holding those positions must also be considered. The rail unions' exercise in self-interest hurts the labor movement generally at a time when it faces an uncertain future. By stubbornly resisting a series of impartial decisions, the railroad Brotherhoods serve neither their cause, management's needs nor the country's interest.