Freight lines roared back into business Thursday after Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation that sent striking rail workers back to work.
Dan Lang, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said that as of about 6 a.m. MDT, 95 percent of the nation's picket lines were disbanded."The strike is over," Lang said.
In Utah, freight union members went back on the job, but many are pessimistic the emergency board established under the legislation will bargain contracts that address their concerns about wages, health-care benefits and working conditions.
"The feeling was there's not a lot of consideration how (the nation's freight system) is affecting us. We're supposed to be the sacrificial lambs to the national economy and what the business interests and carriers want," said Milton Braselton, vice president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, Local 968.
Bush said a continued strike would "cripple the economy" and threaten national security.
In its first day, the strike stranded thousands of commuters and halted all freight shipments. The short-lived walkout cost the country $65 million in lost revenues, government officials said.
Except in its northeast corridor, all Amtrak travel was disrupted by the walkout. But Amtrak spokesman Marci Larson said Thursday passenger service should resume throughout the country within 24 hours.
"It means things are slowly getting back to normal. We hope to resume all our operations in 12 to 24 hours. Each of the freight lines have to tell us when they're ready to operate our trains," she said from her Washington, D.C., office.
George Whaley, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said, "There will be no further interference with commerce."
"We are gratified that the Congress and President Bush have moved so quickly to end the rail strike," Mike Walsh, chairman of Union Pacific Railroad and head of the AAR, said in a statement.
The government intervened after railroad labor unions and major freight carriers were unable to reach a new contract despite three years of trying and a three-month "cooling off" period.
The measure sets up a new emergency board to deal with remaining issues such as work rules and conditions, and would impose a final contract settlement within 65 days if labor and management fail to do so.
It also puts into effect some provisions of a previous board's recommendations that were not in dispute, notably a 3 percent wage increase in July and a provision making rail workers for the first time share in their health-insurance costs.
Both the unions and the railroads would have to accept whatever the new panel recommends if they cannot agree among themselves. Unions could not resort to another strike and railroads could not resort to a lockout.
One of the key negotiators who worked out an end to the national railroad strike Wednesday was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee.
Hatch said he proposed the key compromise that allowed all sides to agree to a quick end - setting up a special three-person board to give unions one last shot at changing a wage and benefits package suggested by a presidential emergency board last summer.
The House and Senate acted with uncommon speed to stop the walkout, the first in nearly a decade. Democrats and Republicans alike said the government could not tolerate any strike that endangered an economy already mired in a slump.
The House passed the measure 400-5. The Senate immediately bypassed normal parliamentary procedures, declaring the bill "deemed to be passed" on arrival, and sent it to the White House without any formal vote.
"It's a terrific solution to a horrible problem," Hatch said in an interview Thursday. "The nation would have lost $650 million to $1 billion a day if the strike had continued. And the two railroads operating in Utah would have been ruined."
He said the solution came after hard-nosed negotiations that went on for weeks - and were almost round-the-clock since Tuesday - between the Bush administration, Congress, unions and railroad management.
Hatch said some unions - and their supporters in Congress - simply could not accept some provisions recommended by the presidential emergency board last summer that they felt would do away with many jobs. But the administration and railroad management wanted Congress to force their acceptance.
"I suggested to President Bush in the White House Tuesday what I thought would be the only way to solve this quickly," Hatch said. "That would be to constitute the special board."
Hatch said unions wishing to challenge earlier recommendations have to prove that they are unfair and inequitable. "Those are tough tests. But if they can prove it, more power to them."
Hatch said negotiations proceeded until 11:30 p.m. Wednesday when he and Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., engaged in several joint speeches to clarify intent of Congress on issues he said were necessary to protect the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.
When Hatch and Kennedy were in final agreement, the Senate adopted the bill.
"There were a lot of real tough negotiations," Hatch said. "The other side knew if I got my back up, this wouldn't be resolved. And I knew if they got their back up, it wouldn't be either. So we worked together."
A prolonged strike likely would have put the Denver & Rio Grande railroad - which operates in Utah - out of business along with the Burlington Northern, Hatch said. He said Union Pacific - which also operates in Utah - would have been severely damaged.