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President Signs Bill to End U.S. Rail Shutdown

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Congress and the White House moved with rare speed Thursday night to end a crippling two-day nationwide rail shutdown that already had begun to threaten the economy by forcing layoffs at coal mines and auto assembly plants.

The House and Senate passed emergency legislation barring strikes and lockouts by large margins, setting up a “last, best offer” arbitration system to resolve the three major union-management disputes that had idled virtually all U.S. railroads. Bush signed the legislation early today.

Many lawmakers objected strongly that the action was anti-labor, but anxiety about the impact of a prolonged stoppage on the still-fragile economy overrode those concerns.

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President Bush was standing by, ready to sign the bill into law.

“America will be back on track tomorrow,” Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card Jr. said late Thursday. “

Card said that Amtrak’s passenger service along the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston will be running today. Amtrak unions had been set to walk out nationwide at midnight Thursday.

Freight railroads said that they expected to have 75% of their trains running again within 24 hours after the legislation became law and full service restored within 48 hours.

“Some trains will be running within two hours after the bill is signed,” said Tom White, a spokesman for the Assn. of American Railroads. “It’s simply a matter of bringing in the people and moving the freight out of the yards.”

The arbitration system approved by Congress would work this way:

Within three days, the railroads and rail unions each would nominate a single arbitrator. Within the next three days, those two would select a third arbitrator who would help the parties with negotiations toward a settlement in the three disputes covered by the legislation.

If no agreement is reached after 20 days, each side would have five days to submit its last, best contract proposal and negotiations would continue for another seven days.

If there is no agreement at that time, the lone arbitrator would have three days to decide which of the final contract proposals would take effect. The proposed contract would be submitted to the President, who would have three days to decide whether to veto it.

If the President rejected it, the labor unions would be free to strike and the railroads would be free to lock out their employees or change hours and working conditions as they pleased.

At any time during the process, voluntary agreements would take precedence over the terms of the legislation.

With elections less than six months away, members of Congress at first had approached the task of intervening in the shutdown gingerly, but the prospect that a continued rail stoppage could pull down other industries and send damaging shock waves through the nation’s economy just as it seems to be emerging from a long recession apparently spurred action Thursday.

Nonetheless, the decision by Congress did not come without some bitterness.

“This bill is a fundamental mistake that will haunt railroad workers for decades,” said Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), while Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) added: “Workers are getting the short end of the stick.”

His sentiments were echoed by union leaders and the AFL-CIO, which said that the legislation “punishes workers by taking away their right to strike while rewarding the carriers for their irresponsible action in shutting down. . . . “

Mac Fleming, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Workers, one of the three unions involved in the dispute, said that he is skeptical about the legislation.

“We hope (it) doesn’t weaken our position,” he said. “Arbitration can be the worst way to arrive at an agreement.”

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a champion of organized labor’s interests, defended the measure as the best that could be done under the circumstances. Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), another pro-labor Democrat, added:

“It’s a new idea and it treats organized labor better than anything Congress has ever done before.”

Acting first, the House voted, 248 to 140, for the bill and the Senate followed suit on an 87-6 roll call just before a 12:01 a.m. EDT deadline for a possible walkout by three unions against the Amtrak passenger line.

The Senate first defeated, in a 76-18 vote, a move by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) to require an additional 30-day cooling-off period to allow negotiations to continue. It then approved the House-passed bill and sent it to the White House.

The move ends the two-day shutdown that began shortly after midnight Wednesday when the International Assn. of Machinists struck the CSX Corp., one of the nation’s largest freight lines. Declaring that a strike against one railroad was a strike against all, the nation’s 40 freight railroads halted their operations, leading to charges by the unions of an illegal lockout.

The action stopped all freight traffic across the country and severely disrupted most passenger service. The White House estimated that the shutdown was costing the nation $1 billion a day in lost wages and production.

Besides the Machinists and Maintenance of Way unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was involved in disputes with railroad management. The disputes have revolved largely around job security and work rules.

Although the initial strike involved only freight lines, Amtrak service was disrupted in areas--such as Southern California--where passenger lines share common tracks with freight lines. Amtrak had expected to be spared when the three major unions with which it was negotiating announced late Tuesday night that they would extend their strike deadline 48 hours.

By Thursday, the strike’s effects already had rippled through the nation’s basic industries, beginning with the closure of coal mines before hitting General Motors Corp. GM slashed work schedules at five assembly plants Thursday and had taken steps to close three plants starting today.

Light-truck plants in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and Shreveport, La., ran short of sheet metal that normally arrives by rail from plants in Flint, Mich., and Indianapolis, a GM spokeswoman said. The plants, which together build about 1,400 trucks daily and employ 4,600, probably won’t reopen until the rail strike ends.

The 4,000 employees in Wilmington, Del., who make the Chevrolet Corsica and Beretta, and another 5,300 in Oklahoma City who make the Buick Century and Oldsmobile Ciera, also worked a short day Thursday.

GM said that it planned to keep the Wilmington and Oklahoma City plants operating today but had warned that most of its 28 U.S. car and truck assembly sites would “face serious production interruptions if the rail situation is not resolved quickly.”

Chrysler Corp. officials also said that they had planned, settlement or not, to keep all their plants running through today but that shutdowns would spread quickly if the rail disruption continued into next week.

As predicted, the coal industry was hit hard and fast. Railroads deliver about two-thirds of the coal that is shipped in this country.

No industry-wide figures were available Thursday. But Island Creek Coal Co. in Lexington, Ky., the nation’s 15th largest coal producer, said that the interruption of rail service had cost it $2 million a day in lost revenues.

“We are not shipping coal,” said government relations director. “The prospects of a continued strike in this industry are disastrous.”

Jerry McPhee, Island Creek’s government relations director, said that three of its 20 mines closed almost immediately.

The coal industry’s chief customers, electric utilities and steel producers, said they had stockpiled enough coal to last for days or weeks. The Inland Steel Co. of Chicago said that it was more likely to suffer from the problems of its customers, especially the auto industry, than from a shortage of raw materials.

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