INSIDE TALK - RIP WATSON AFTER NINE MONTHS, RAIL TALKS HAVE YET TO DELIVER RESULTS

INSIDE TALK - RIP WATSON AFTER NINE MONTHS, RAIL TALKS HAVE YET TO DELIVER RESULTS

National rail contract negotiations that began nine months ago passed the three-quarter pole this week with no one near the finish line and some contenders stuck near the starting gate.

Whereas most contract talks face a fixed deadline or the expiration of an existing contract, rail labor negotiations exist in a time zone of their own that allows for multiple laps around the negotiating track before the process ends.This contract race started with a bang in November 1994, when carriers tried a pre-emptive court strike to keep unions in national negotiations.

Since both sides looked each other in the eye at the starting gate, things haven't gone far.

Today, some believe the carriers, functioning as the National Carriers Conference Committee, are farthest along in talks with a coalition of unions representing signalmen, electricians, machinists and sheet-metal workers.

The carriers are not even in the same room with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, which has led the fight to negotiate contracts with individual railroads.

The National Mediation Board succeeded in getting the BMWE and the carriers into adjacent rooms - an approach each can justify as either national or local talks, depending on their perspective.

In other words, they're barely beyond the starting gate.

CHIEF NEGOTIATOR CALLS PROGRESS 'VERY SLOW'

And how are the talks going in general?

In the words of the carriers' chief negotiator, Robert Allen, "very slow. We are dealing with very complicated and tough issues."

The "tough" category includes wages, productivity and health and welfare benefits.

To make matters more complex, the main negotiations continue against the background of another carrier's negotiating success.

Illinois Central Railroad, negotiating separately, inked contracts with annual wage increases of 3.6 percent through 1999.

That created a financial yardstick for national talks - in line with traditional railroad strategy of signing a pattern agreement with one union and extending it to everyone else.

Mr. Allen insists, "We think it (the IC raise) is too rich for the people in national handling."

National carriers say IC could afford a 3.6 percent deal because it wrings 36 cents of operating profit from each revenue dollar, which is double what other railroads do.

But NCCC carriers posted $2.8 billion in operating profit already this year, a number unions can use to claim carriers are doing quite well and can afford more than a meager wage increase.

The carriers still hew to the familiar argument that rail workers earn top

dollar and point to a pattern of 2 percent wage increases in recent union contracts.

The scope of the stakes look like this: Each 1 percent of overall salary increase boosts expenses by approximately $100 million annually.

Health and welfare also are keeping the runners stuck in the mud.

Unions want to preserve a deal that allows members to keep a lid on health- care costs, while carriers want to lower those costs to levels more like other businesses.

Productivity also is a touchy issue.

Unions have agreed to extend the standard basis of train crew pay by 30 percent, to 130 miles in the past decade.

Moving toward a 160 mile day is a possibility.

The IC talks have considered a carrier bid to convert the basis of crew pay to hours worked, rather than miles.

Unions have had to swallow smaller crew sizes and accept more flexible job assignments that further disrupt family life.

Mr. Allen wants it known that the carriers will keep plugging.

"It takes time to come up with a solution that works for both sides," he said in a recent interview. "We won't be satisfied until we have agreements."

BOARD FINDS IT HARD TO MANEUVER

With few incentives to move quickly toward a solution, the National Mediation Board is in a tricky position.

On one hand, the board has the ability to be the jockey that urges the horses on.

On the other, it is the steward that judges the fairness of the negotiating horse race.

It's hard to be both.

The NMB already is "riding" disputes with the BMWE, the United Transportation Union and the Transportation Communications Union - three organizations hard hit by cutbacks and job consolidations.

Based on the pace of this contract negotiation race, the early line that predicted a finish late in 1995 appears way off.

Maybe we should be asking: How many times will the horses that want to run pass that three-quarter pole?