Unions and railroads began Friday a new effort to resolve their 4-year-old wage-and-work rule disputes under the pressure of binding arbitration imposed as the government ended a two-day rail shutdown.
But some union officials branded the new and untried approach "a crime" that will destroy collective bargaining by effectively ending the right of labor to strike.Railroad officials said the new procedure, in which an arbitrator is authorized to choose a winner from the best offers made by railroads and unions, is uncharted territory, at least for the railroads.
Congress modeled the winner-take-all process on the arbitration system adopted in the Major Leagues to settle pay disputes between owners and baseball stars.
The railroads said they hoped baseball's approach to arbitration could be transplanted to their industry and help end the stubborn labor disputes that have festered for more than four years.
Congress, meanwhile, seemed relieved to shed, at least for the moment, the onerous responsibility of intervening in railroad labor disputes and imposing a settlement itself.
But labor said it was enraged.
"Two crimes were committed this week," said Mac A. Fleming, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. "The railroads blackmailed Congress and the nation by holding the economy hostage. And Congress murdered collective bargaining in the rail industry."
Fleming said the Maintenance workers union went out of its way to avoid creating a national emergency of the kind that would force Congress to intervene. The union, he said, kept talks going beyond the midnight deadline last Tuesday.
When another union, the Machinists, launched a selective strike against CSX Transportation, a regional railroad, the industry responded as one, shutting down all U.S. freight railroads and causing the stoppage of Amtrak passenger trains that operate over their tracks.
The result was the arbitration law President Bush signed shortly after midnight Thursday.
"Experience has taught us that binding arbitration tacked on the end of the process doesn't encourage bargaining, it discourages it," Fleming said.