RAILROADS ASK UNION FOR ADVANCE NOTICE OF STRIKES

RAILROADS ASK UNION FOR ADVANCE NOTICE OF STRIKES

''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.'' That famous line from a motion picture is being said by railroad labor relations executives.

Five major railroads recently went into a federal district court in Texas seeking an order requiring one of their unions to give 10 days notice before striking.Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which governs labor relations in the airline and railroad industries, strikes are very rare and with one exception may be called only under certain conditions and then only after extensive mediation.

The carrier suit is about the one exception. The railroads involved are Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX and Kansas City Southern.

The union is the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. The BMWE, considered one of the more militant rail worker organizations, struck UP and NS earlier this year.

In recent years, the union has struck all of the complaining railroads at one time or another.

Other railroad worker unions have used the sudden, unannounced strike weapon, also, but not with the frequency of the BMWE.

In the UP case, the union struck Feb. 24, hitting the Central Corridor operations of the railroad over the carrier's plan to stop making panel track sections at a Wyoming facility whose workers are represented by BMWE.

Union locals on the Norfolk & Western portion of Norfolk Southern struck May 4 over the company's alleged failure to follow contractual rules for posting and filling job vacancies.

Both strikes were called without notice. In both cases, the walkouts ended within hours, after federal judges issued temporary restraining orders sending the workers back to their jobs and ordering the companies to maintain the contractual status quo until an injunction hearing.

Under the RLA, disputes between railroads and unions are classified as either minor or major. Minor disputes over interpretation of the contract cannot lead to strikes, but must be submitted to binding arbitration.

Major disputes involve non-negotiated changes in the contract and unions may strike immediately when that happens. Strikes also may occur when unions and railroads fail to reach contract agreements, but only after extensive mediation by the National Mediation Board, which administers the RLA.

Union officials, their lawyers and carrier labor relations executives all know the RLA and its provisions very well. These disruptive sudden strikes are not wildcats, in that they are not walk-outs by groups of disgruntled workers. They are called by union officials who invariably claim the company has breached the contract, which would make them legal.

There is no question that strikes are disruptive, especially when they are called suddenly with no prior warning. A union official once observed that strikes are supposed to be disruptive.

Proving once again that what lawyers say in court and what spokesman say on behalf of unions and companies are not always the same, both UP and NS said at the time that operations were not disrupted, that pickets appeared at only a few locations and that workers represented by other unions were able to get to work without crossing picket lines.

In the Texas lawsuit, railroad lawyers now say the walkouts hurt service for several days and damaged customer relationships.

Perhaps.

The suit against BMWE may not be as draconian as it first appears.

One management source pointed out that in the UP dispute, a court ruled that the issue in dispute was covered by the contract and that the decision to close the panel track facility was a breach.

The union had the right the strike. The carrier canceled plans to close the plant. End of dispute. Union one, railroad nothing.

One high-ranking labor relations executive said the suit could give the union what it wants. If a dispute is minor, that can be determined within the 10 days and no strike will occur, but the union would have forced the company to binding arbitration.

If a dispute is ruled major, the union is free to strike, but in almost every case the company backs away, canceling the action that led to the strike threat, or negotiating a settlement.

Union officials have told me that they feel they must strike, even when they know the dispute is minor and that they will be ordered back to work. That's because many of these issues occur out in the field, far from headquarters and only after the union has been unable to get the attention of labor relations executives with the authority to make decisions.

Nothing like a little strike to focus one's attention. The railroads have gone to court because they have been unable to find a remedy to the disruption of sudden strikes.

From time to time, they have sought damages from the unions following an illegal strike. But taking a ''no harm, no foul'' stance, judges are reluctant to award damages except in contempt cases, such as when American Airlines pilots engaged in a slowdown last year.