PHILADELPHIA -- A federal judge ordered 3,400 striking Conrail employees to return to work this afternoon just hours after the track maintenance workers walked out, shutting down the freight railroad's operations.
U.S. District Judge James T. Giles issued the temporary restraining order pending a full hearing Aug. 27 on Conrail's contention that the strike is illegal.
"This is undoubtedly in line with what we have said before: that they don't have the right to strike," said Conrail spokesman Bob Libkind.
The ruling came hours after 3,400 workers walked out over Conrail's use of outside contractors to build tracks in Marysville, Ohio. The union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said Conrail promised in writing not to contract out the work.
"They didn't even notify us that they were," union General Chairman Jed Dodd said this morning. "We found out about it when the contractor showed up to install track."
Dodd said the union has protested to Conrail but the railroad had not replied.
The strike shut down all movement by Conrail, the nation's fifth-largest freight rail company. It moves about 7 percent of the nation's freight volume.
Libkind said the company did contract out work, and he didn't know about any promise not to use outside contractors, adding: "It's totally irrelevant."
He said the strike is illegal under railroad labor law. "You have to go through a whole series of things" before there's a strike or a lockout, he said. Those procedures have not been followed, he said.
The BMWE represents 3,400 Conrail track construction employees. Dodd said other railroad unions were honoring his union's picket lines. The last time the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees struck against Conrail was in 1994. Dodd said that was over safety issues.
Conrail, originally set up by Congress in 1976 to reorganize six bankrupt Northeast railroads, operates in 12 states in the Northeast and Midwest, Washington, D.C., and Quebec in Canada. It has about 23,500 employees and 11,000 miles of track.
Two other railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, are in the process of buying parts of Conrail, splitting the company between them. Federal regulators have approved the deals but the restructuring hasn't begun yet.
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