ON DECEMBER 1st, the U.S. Senate passed a union-busting resolution which used the power of the state under the Railroad Labor Act to outlaw a potential powerful nationwide strike of railroad workers scheduled for December 9th. The bill forcing them back to work under a hated contract with continuing draconian scheduling and without a single day of paid sick leave passed 80 to 15. A separate amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders to add seven days leave to the contract pushed down their throats failed to reach the 60 required votes, and was defeated 52-43.
Biden and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including most of the “squad,” combined to legally override democratic union rights, and the passivity of some union heads helped them get away with it.
Railroad workers had been working for three years without a raise. Even before the pandemic, conditions were getting worse as profits for rail companies grew.
The number of major (“Class One”) freight railroads has gone from forty to seven since the the 1980s wave of deregulation and consolidations. During the last decade this has been accompanied by an increase in the rate of exploitation through “precision scheduled railroading,” a form of just-in-time logistics management that left no slack in the system. Over the last six years they have cut around 45,000 workers, 30% of the workforce.
This makes it difficult to fill in for an absence, and incidentally leads to problems in the rail service for corporate customers, even as freight rates have been rising. For workers, it means increased workload and stress. It means taking any scheduled time off even more difficult, on top of the lack of sick leave. Engineers, for example, could be sent away from home for days on a long haul, and still be on call 24/7 when they got back. A wish for a life besides work became a main demand of the workers.
Some lines, like BNSF, instituted a hated “Hi-Viz” attendance policy with its draconian points system. Union officers for engineers and conductors called it “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.” All this time BNSF was bringing in billions, as was its owner Warren Buffett.
All the above increases profitability for shareholders. Last year the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profit. Since 2010 US railroads have paid out $196 billion in stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders, more than they spent in physically maintaining rail and equipment.
With these profits, high inflation, and unlivable scheduling in mind, workers put pressure on their unions to come up with significant improvements in pay and conditions. But union leaders put their faith in a Presidential Emergency Board convened by Biden. The Board’s recommendations in August included a significant sounding 24% raise over the five year contract (although averaged out since the last raise, this still is under the current inflation rate.) But the board refused to touch any of the crucial quality of life issues. Despite several unions adopting the recommendations as a tentative agreement, the 5,000 Machinists of IAM were the first to reject their union’s recommendations, and the large unions of conductors and train engineers (BMWE and SMART-TD) did not sign on.
Then came the 20-hour closed door talks at the Department of Labor with the Biden administration, rail bosses, and top union officials. The Democrats were especially keen to avoid a disruptive strike before the mid-terms, and pressured union leaders to come to an agreement. What resulted was just tiny adjustments to the same recommendations, now provisionally approved by unions. With no changes to scheduling and still no paid sick days, workers were offered one extra vacation day that could be used for doctor’s visits, if scheduled 30 days in advance and approved!
Despite the cheering from above, there was a series of close votes among the thirteen unions involved, with four, representing a majority of the total workers covered, voting against the settlement. With all unions pledged to honor the picket lines of any one union, a strike threatened. However, despite the votes, the first unions to reject the deal pushed their strike dates later, ostensibly to all line up together on December 9th, but also giving Congress the time to intervene under the 1926 Railway Labor Act.
(For more details see the Railroad Workers United earlier analysis of the contracts and recent open letter.)
In a time of increased support for unions and attention to scattered strikes and organizing efforts, many on the left were looking to the national rail strike to be a galvanizing force, showing the power of labor.
Yet the same capitalist mouthpieces who have been telling us for years that unions are dead and a changed economy leaves workers no power, were now warning that this strike could cost $2 billion per day, bring essential services to a halt, and ruin the economy.
Over 400 companies and business associations with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote Congress demanding the strike be quelched.
The fact that Biden, who likes to bill himself as a friend of the worker, was instrumental in this agreement, and called immediately for Congress to force it through, without even the pretense of an improvement, speaks volumes about the pro-business nature of the Democratic Party.
In a statement published November 30th, the Democratic Socialists of America wrote, “Any member of Congress who votes yes on the tentative agreement is siding with billionaires and forcing a contract on rail workers that does not address their most pressing demand of paid sick days.” Yet the same day not just Jamaal Bowman, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (both New York State Democratic representatives, and members of DSA) scandalously voted for that House resolution 100, which forced railroad workers back to work on the rejected Tentative Agreement. (In fact, Ro Khanna, Cory Bush, and Ilhan Omar of the progressive caucus also voted Yes to break the strike, while Rashida Tlaib was one of the eight No votes). It’s true they also voted–with most Democrats and three Republicans–for H.R. 116, to provide workers with seven paid sick days (workers had asked for 15). But it would have been possible to vote for the sick day amendment without also approving the union-busting measure.
When the separate packages were then sent to the Senate, exactly what was expected happened. As the cross-union rank-and-file grouping Railroad Workers United put it, it was a “one-two punch from the two political parties,” both responding to “Big Business.”
Workers are distraught, and while they may not be disillusioned because they had few illusions to begin with, they are disgusted with the entire process. Top union officials have a role in this as well, first by the select few union heads signing the tentative agreement with the bosses and the Biden administration in September. Then, after members voted it down, by postponing strike dates and fostering a “wait-and-see” attitude focusing on Congress, rather than preparing members for a strike.
Many socialists have done what they could to support organizing and messaging from Railroad Workers United, calling for a no vote in union elections and defending their right to withdraw their labor. Of course, the best response of a mobilized rank and file would be to continue their strike anyway. The Senate cannot run trains, nor can the military force 115,000 freight rail workers back to work. The recent forced reversal of a new anti-union law by the illegal strike of Ontario teachers, joined by other unions, shows what can be done when workers are angry and prepared to strike. In America today, the public sector is more heavily unionized than the private, and those unions were largely built off then illegal strikes in the 1970s. But rail union heads are used to working under the Railway Labor Act, and are kowtowing to Biden and the Congress. Some militants inside the train unions have done heroic work, but at this point their influence does not seem large enough to start an effective wildcat, or push union leaders into illegal action. Of course, if any signs of resistance do break out, we must all pull out all the stops in building unprecedented solidarity.
For now, we should continue to help support RWU and other rank and file movements, and build the radical socialist minority that can lend influence to those militants. We should continue the initial mobilizing in solidarity with the railroad workers, keeping in mind next year’s UPS contract and others. We must repeat the lessons so no one falls for another corporate Democrat like Biden who pretends to be a friend of labor. Perhaps more difficult, we must be able to support union officials as they confront the bosses, while preparing to act independently when they try to demobilize us. Socialists inside the DSA must also take a hard, honest look at how to best build the working class movement and socialist influence within it while their most visible elected representatives remain unaccountable.
— Eric Fretz