WASHINGTON — The national freight rail strike that threatened to paralyze the sagging U.S. economy was snuffed out in less than a day when President Bush early this morning signed legislation ordering 235,000 strikers back to work immediately.
The bill, passed hurriedly by Congress late Wednesday night, also creates a special three-member presidential panel that will review the protracted labor dispute between the freight railroads and eight unions and impose a final settlement by June.
Anticipating Bush's signature, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO said pickets would be advised to depart railroad yards when Bush signed the bill. A rail industry spokeswoman predicted that freight trains would begin moving within eight hours of that action. She said the rail system would return to full strength within 24 hours.
Using its power under the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the rail and airline industries, the House voted 400 to 5 for the back-to-work bill. The Senate shortly before midnight approved it on a voice vote.
"I am just delighted that we are very close to having this over," said Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner. "They will be back to work. That means the layoffs that would have occurred will not occur. That means the plants that would have to shut down, will not have to shut down."
Railroad officials, while pleased with the strike's end, withheld formal comment. The unions involved in the dispute were disappointed by Congress' action. They had hoped to use a strike to gain leverage against the railroads after working three years without a contract.
"I'd say we didn't win," said one disgruntled union official.
Congress, aware of predictions that hundreds of thousands of workers in rail-dependent industries might be laid off if the strike lasted more than a few days, acted with extraordinary speed.
"I have not seen an issue as potentially contentious as this one resolved with so little partisan politics," said Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), who headed a key subcommittee in the fashioning of the back-to-work bill.
The only votes against the bill were cast by Reps. Carl C. Perkins (D-Ky.), Don Edwards (D-San Jose), Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Jim Moody (D-Wis.).
The strike had begun 14 hours earlier, at 7 a.m. local time Wednesday, after a federally mandated cooling-off period expired at midnight.
A harrowing combination of circumstances made it certain that the strike would not be allowed to last long.
With so many industries struggling to climb out of the recession, the threat of even temporary mass layoffs and production slowdowns was politically unpalatable. The fact that tens of thousands of commuters were also affected when passenger trains were unable to use struck freight tracks worsened the dilemma.
"If it went on for three or four days, it could have been an economic catastrophe," said Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.).
Congress intervened even faster than it had during the last national rail strike, which lasted four days in 1982.
The new legislation requires independent review of the recommendations released last January by a presidential emergency board, which Bush had appointed in 1990 in an effort to push the railroads and unions toward contract agreement.
Because the recommendations of the emergency board were not binding, they failed to encourage negotiations or stave off a strike. The unions considered them biased toward management.
The new legislation creates a "special arbitration board" with the power to impose a settlement. The new board is to closely model its settlement after the recommendations of the presidential emergency board, which suggested wage hikes of only 10% over four years and called on employees to begin paying for a portion of their health benefits.
The new board can use its own judgment if labor or management can show "material errors" that challenge the "presumptive validity" of the original recommendations, Congress said. Contentious issues such as the size of crews on trains remain to be dealt with.
The wording of the legislation was a compromise. The White House and the railroads wanted Congress to flatly impose the recommendations of the presidential emergency board. The unions, which did not want Congress to become involved at all, hoped that Congress would at least start a completely new review of the dispute.
When Wednesday's strike began, the railroads shut down immediately rather than attempting to operate a limited freight schedule with supervisory personnel. Trains en route to their destinations were stopped at the nearest freight yard.
"Nothing's operating that we know of," said George Whaley, a spokesman for the Assn. of American Railroads.
The strike quickly put a stranglehold on American industry, stalling rail carloads of everything from auto parts and coal to Cap'n Crunch and chicken feed. Ford Motor Co. cut two shifts at its big Chicago assembly plant Wednesday.