BY RUTH ROBINETT
NEW YORK - The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMWE) and the passenger railroad Amtrak agreed October 27 to extend a "cooling-off" period for another eight days, until November 6, thereby pushing back the deadline for a possible strike for the second time in two weeks. The request for the extension was made by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater "in view of the significant progress made by the parties," said Transportation Dept. spokesman William Schultz. "There has been a lot of give and take.- This is the first time in this cycle of the negotiations that there has been significant engagement on all issues, including wages and productivity, against the backdrop of Amtrak's financial picture."
The latest development came as Congress was preparing to step in to stop a strike. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi had said October 27 that the Senate might take up a bill the next day that would force the track workers back to work and eventually require binding arbitration if the union and company could not agree after 90 days. Lott also said he intended to attach a bill that would give the Amtrak board of directors greater freedom in determining routes based on profitability, authorize $3.4 billion for operating expenses through 2000, and ease current labor protections on contracting out work and layoffs. Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said, "At some point, unless there are labor reforms Amtrak will never be a profitable enterprise."
The House Transportation Committee was planning a hearing for October 28 on a companion measure.
At issue is wage parity for BMWE members at Amtrak. The company recently rejected wage recommendations from a government-appointed board that are the same as those agreed to last year between the BMWE and other class I railroads. The board did not recommend the same benefit, job security, or work rule improvements that are also part of the agreement, but instead proposed these and other local issues be placed into binding arbitration for final resolution. The BMWE organizes 2,300 workers who construct and maintain Amtrak's railroad tracks, buildings, bridges, and electrical power systems that power trains.
In another development, the BMWE, Amtrak, and
representatives of other unions and railroad agencies
reached an agreement that would allow the Long Island
Rail Road (LIRR) and New Jersey Transit (NJT), which
bring commuters to New York City, to run in the event of
a strike, along with Septa, which serves Philadelphia.
Earlier agreements would have let Metra in Chicago keep
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