It is time for Congress to end the deception that management and labor in the railroad industry have the same freedom that the rest of private industry has to negotiate contracts, including the freedom to strike.
And it is also time for the railroad industry to stop pretending that featherbedding is a massive abomination that is killing it.
Let's first look at the legal fiction that a major freight rail strike is possible if management and the unions are unable to agree on a contract.
There is no common-sense reason to continue the charade, since Congress has never allowed such a strike for more than a couple of days--and never will--because it could wreck the economy.
The silly game of pretending has been going on since the early 1900s, and no participant in the latest game thought for a minute that the strike of 225,000 rail workers would last more than a few days. (It was over in fewer than 19 hours.) But the fake threat of a longer strike, and the reality of the brief one, still cost a few million dollars and distressed millions of other workers and employers, who feared that a rail strike would cripple their businesses.
So, in the aftermath of last week's costly but phony show of strength by both sides, Congress should declare upfront that such strikes endanger the nation's economic health and will not be permitted.
Instead, the parties should be required to submit their disputes to binding arbitration, which, of course, Congress orders them to do anyway--but only after they go through the motions of threatening to devastate the economy.
Arbitration is mandated in the Postal Service, and this week unions representing the nation's 500,000 postal workers and Postal Service management are presenting their arguments in their own dispute to an impartial panel of arbitrators.
Neither side is pretending that it might shut down the mail system if the other side does not change its position.
And what about the railroad industry's allegation that featherbedding by employees is an intolerable evil that is ruining industry profits? That's nonsense.
Industry profit margins are higher than they have been in 40 years, and revenue levels are also hitting record highs, averaging $2.5 billion a year.
There is nothing wrong with the giant railroad corporations wanting to make even more. The workers want the same thing.
But the companies say they are being forced by their union contracts to employ far more workers than they really need and that such featherbedding is preventing industry profits from soaring above their current record levels.
Railroads are hauling more tonnage today--1.4 billion tons a year--than they did in 1955, and they are doing it with 225,000 workers, compared to 1 million then.
More workers can be squeezed out of jobs only by increasing the risk of accidents. The industry wants just two people to operate those massive freight trains instead of three. If the workers agree to even more job losses despite the increased danger, the cuts should be done only by attrition.
The enormous payroll savings stems from increased efficiency and improved technology, mainly the use of more powerful engines that travel much faster and for greater distances than they did in the old days.
While profits are healthy as a result of huge productivity increases, the real wages of workers are not. Many earn a relatively good living--some of the experienced ones earn up to $50,000 a year for operating engines that pull fast-moving lines of 70 or so cars loaded with millions of dollars worth of freight.
But their real wages are declining, and the latest increases ordered by a presidential board will mean a further drop in the value of their paychecks.
The unions estimate that real wages will have gone down 16% between 1988, when they got their last pay hike, and the end of their new three-year contract. Rail industry productivity is continuing to rise at a spectacular rate: seven times the national average for all industries.
The time is ripe to stop pretending that rail workers have the right to strike, and the industry should stop pretending that featherbedding is doing it in.