Railroad management over the years has sought elimination or modification of standing work rules that, it argues, impede full utilization of workforces. The unions have resisted these changes, viewing them as threats to individual jobs and to the unions themselves as institutions.
Since the establishment, in 1971, of a quasi-public corporation, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, and the subsequent elimination of unprofitable passenger operations, the unions also have sought protection against layoffs. The railroad unions feared that another quasi public entity, the Consolidated Rail Corporation, or Conrail, established in early 1976 to take over six bankrupt railroads in the northeast, would further reduce employment opportunities. Eleven years later, however, the government sold its stock in Conrail to the public.
To employees, the work rules represent job security, which they consider essential because of the special conditions of their work. Circumstances that gave rise to the rules include the authoritarian organization of the railroads to which workers are subject, occupational hazards, variations in the size of the workforce because of fluctuating traffic, and the nontransferability of most railroad skills to other industries. Workers have hence drawn up elaborate rules to protect against arbitrary or capricious actions by management. They have, however, been unable to stem the sharp decline in employment, resulting from technological changes in the industry.