WHEN it comes to strikes, the United States government rarely intervenes.
It sat out the huge walkout by thousands of Eastern Airline workers a few years ago. It didn't step into the nationwide bus drivers strike at Greyhound.
Yet, within hours of this week's nationwide railroad walkout, Congress and the White House were falling over each other to find a solution. Not since the air-traffic controllers strike in 1981 has the US government taken such a large and direct role in settling a major labor dispute.
After swift action by Congress, President Bush was awakened Thursday morning to sign legislation ending the one-day strike.
Why do railroads get such special treatment?
For one thing, railroads are more important economically. They carry more than a third of US inter-city freight (according to a measure known as ton-miles). The Association of American Railroads claims the industry carries 60 percent of the nation's coal and automobiles.
A nationwide rail stoppage would hurt the economy far more and far faster than either inter-city buses (which are less significant) or airlines (where shippers can use alternative airlines).
"The ramifications of this are much more important" than an airline or bus strike, says Allan Zarembski, a railroad industry consultant in Cherry Hill, N.J. Steel and automakers would have to lay off workers almost immediately if railroads couldn't replenish their lean inventories. According to one estimate, 500,000 to 1 million workers could be laid off in other industries within two weeks of a strike.
Railroad officials praised Congress's quick work to end the shutdown.
"We're gratified that the Congress and President Bush have moved so quickly to end the strike," said Mike Walsh, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. "Trains will be moving again very soon." Labor unions displeased
Labor unions, however, were unhappy with the measure.
Some rail unions suggest that the White House wanted to convince Congress to move quickly for political reasons. Unions had worried than in a crisis atmosphere, Congress would force a settlement along the lines already proposed by a …