As these lines are being written, nobody knows when Metro will be completely back to normal.
Even U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer can't be sure. He has been pressing for a speedy return to normal, and has the power to defy those who defy him.
Labor contracts are written by legal experts, yet always seem to contain language subject to more than one interpretation. In anticipation of such controversies, most labor contracts contain a procedure for resolving disputed interpretations. Yet months often pass before the machinery for resolving disputes begins to turn.
Even when negotiators agree to terms without intervention from either courts or arbitrators, rank and file unionists sometimes march off in another direction and engage in "wildcat" stoppages. If courts then enjoin such disruptions, militants can resort to "job actions", which are usually more effective than strikes.
In a strike, employes do not report for work, and receive no pay. In a job action, employes do report, presumably for work, although it quickly becomes apparent that they mean to be considerably less productive than usual, even though they will demand full pay, and get it. Management seldom has the courage to call their bluff and throw them out for failing to discharge their duties properly. And every management capitulation encourages more job actions.
If garbage collectors can defy no-strike laws, why can't fire fighters? If fire fighters can get away with it, why not the police? And if Blue Flu sickouts aren't punished, why should postal workers or Metro drivers be singled out for firing? Sure, thee law forbids strikes against such public agencies as the U.S. Postal Service and Metro, but who pays attention to the law these days?
Metro drivers thought they were entitled to a cost of living increase of 20 cents an hour, and when they didn't get it they struck. When Oberdorfer told them their strike was illegal and threatened strike leaders with punishment, he got a mixed reaction.
Some drivers said they were ready to go back to work. Some wished they could go back but were afraid they would become targets of violence if they did. Others said they wouldn't go back until they got their 20 cents. In effect, they were telling the court to go to hell.
Men who are on strike or engaged in any other test of nerve and determination can derive psychological benefit from tough talk. It bolsters their morale. But there is a point at which a determined man becomes aresolute and a resolute man becomes a fanatic foredoomed to failure.
There is a time to fight and a time to make peace, and it is useful to know which is which. Drivers with some skill at arithmetic can easily figure out at what point their strike stops making economic sense.
After 30 months with Metro, a driver makes $3,165 an hour. He usually works 8.5 hours a day, five days a week. His pay for the first 40 hours he works each week is $326.60, and his 21/2 hours of overtime add 30.62 to bring the paycheck of an average driver to $357.22. The disputed 20-cant increase would add $3 in straight time and 75 cents in overtime, and bring the average weekly paycheck to $365.97.
The only way the drivers could have truly won this would have been for them to obtain a raise through bargaining or arbitration. Once they left their jobs, they could hope only for a limited victory. The first day, they lost $71.44 in wages. Even if a 1-day strike had won them an $8.75 raise, it would have taken more than eight weeks to recoup $71.44. If some now lose a whole week's wages, they will have to work at the higher wage for 41 weeks before they earn back the $357.22 they lost. If some stay out longer, they may never get even.
Every striker has jeopardized his rights to fringe benefits such as four weeks of vacation, 12 days of sick leave, group hospitalization, dental benefits, life insurance and a retirement plan. In fact, strikers have jeopardized their very jobs because their strike was illegal and the community was damaged by it.
Every penny-per-hour of wage increase costs Metro $127,000 a year, 20 cents will cost the public $2,540,000, and the public thinks fares and subsidies are already too high.
Regardless of how angry they were, th e drivers would have been well advised to ask themselves: Does it really pay to risk so much to gain so little - especially when the issue will probably be settled not by a strike but by an arbitrator?