For a decade, U.S. railroads and their unions have been at loggerheads over work rules. The unions, uneasily watching railroad employment dwindle from 2,000,000 in 1920 to 780,000 in 1960, have fought to preserve their hold by negotiating archaic, make-work labor contracts. The railroads, battered by competition from trucks, buses and planes, have fought to cut jobs still more and in 1959 launched an all-out publicity attack on the "featherbedding," which they claimed cost them $500 million a year. Last week, after more than a year of study, a 15-man Presidential Railroad Commission came up with the first coherent and impartial proposals on the subject.
The commission's railroad and union members spent so much time sniping at each other that the report had to be written almost entirely by five nonindustry members, led by peppery Manhattan Lawyer Simon H. Rifkind. The report hit hard at the rail unions by recommending the gradual elimination of over 40,000 freight-and yard-engine firemensurvivors of the era of steam locomotives who, at union insistence, still ride diesel engines. (Rifkind & Co. conceded, however, that firemen still provide a necessary margin of safety in the engines of highspeed passenger trains.) The commission urged that the railroads pay dismissed firemen up to 60% of their wages for three years, put them on a national roster for preferential rehiring, and finance 75% of the cost of retraining them for other jobs.
Time & Distance. The commission also wanted to simplify the mind-boggling formulas by which the wages of train crews are set. Under the present system, an engineer on a fast "red apple" run may be paid $39.95 for only four hours' work because he traveled 160 miles, while the engineer of a slower train may have to work ten hours to collect $34.33 because he traveled only 100 miles. Commented Rifkind: "Whoever invented that system belongs to the Rube Goldberg club." The commission proposed that the straightforward test of hours worked be given greater weight in wage formulas. Other commission proposals:
> To establish a compulsory railroad retirement age, which would be set at 70 initially and reduced to 65 by 1967. (In 1959, 22% of all railroad engineers and 15% of all conductors were over 65.)
> To permit train operating crews to switch their own trains in terminals (a job now done by separate yard crews).
> To grant management unlimited rights to introduce technical change, while protecting redundant workers along the lines proposed for the firemen.
Men & Rolling Stock. Reactions to the recommendations were as shopworn as the report was fresh. Railroad spokesmen, though accepting the report, grumbled that the "extreme" provisions for laid-off employees ignored the railroads' financial difficulties. The five union members of the commission complained that the report treated "living men as pieces of rolling stock." The roads and the unions are committed to start translating the report into actual work rules, perhaps late this month, and though bare-knuckle bargaining is inevitable, railroaders believe that at least some of the commission's proposals will eventually become accomplished fact.