THE FORGOTTEN PUBLIC

THE STRIKE ON THE Long Island Rail Road, the nation's biggest commuter rail line, hardly looms large in the consciousness of most Americans. Public transportation, even on a massive scale, is always local. A shutdown won't arouse a flicker of interest elsewhere, especially when pitted against the Super Bowl or an onslaught of severe winter weather.

The Long Island strike is worth mentioning, however, as an example of an antiquated labor bargaining structure, slumbrous political neglect and union jealousies taking precedence over concern for the public. Two heavy snowstorms struck just days after the strike began, compelling tens of thousands of commuters to struggle to and from work in Manhattan as best they could, usually by car when roads were hazardous or even impassable.LIRR management has to bargain with 15 different unions, a throwback to the days when the line was part of the Pennsylvania system. Each had its own demands. The engineers, for instance, wanted more money than the conductors. The conductors, in turn, already had an agreement assuring that no other union would get a better deal. No wonder the LIRR has had five strikes in 15 years.

The railroad is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency, which wants to have it made subject to New York's Taylor Law forbidding strikes by public employees. New York members of Congress have just

succeeded in getting special legislationenacted ordering the unions back to work, but the strike was in progress before their flurry of activity. Yet the dispute had been building for two years and had gone through the cooling-off periods required by the National Railway Labor Act.

Public transportation should be made strike-free, by state or federal law. Cooling-off periods are not enough. Arbitration that may be rejected by either side is not enough. Patchwork political remedies are not enough. A solution - a permanent solution - is needed now.

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