By ERNIE GOTTA and COOPER B.
Part I: Union railroaders reject contract
Railroaders of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), a division of the Teamsters union, voted on Monday, Oct. 10, to reject a contract that did not go far enough to address their needs. If the scheduled upcoming negotiations sputter, a strike could take place as early as Nov. 19—right before the busy holiday commercial season.
About 56 percent of the BMWED membership voted against a contract largely cooked up by the Biden administration, which offered 24 percent raises and $5000 in bonuses but failed to address the central quality of life issues. The core of worker demands focused on more sick time, paid time off, and working conditions.
For over two years, 12 unions (representing over 105,000 workers) under the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC)—including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (Smart-TD), and BMWED—have been in negotiations over several issues, including years without wage increases, PTO, and sick leave. Despite the recent claims of the Biden administration to have quelled the stirrings of rail workers, the possibilities of a rail strike are not sealed away.
Why two and a half years? Two answers: the uncooperative bosses and their shield, the Railway Labor Act (RLA). The carriers had, until the intervention of the U.S. president, been stalling on all demands of the workers unless one condition was met: agree to a reduction in crew sizes, i.e., lay off workers and leave the rest with a greater workload.
Billionaires like Warren Buffett, who owns the BNSF railroad through Berkshire Hathaway, refused to address the fact that nearly 50% of railroaders at BNSF have to work “on call” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and then risk being fired because they are sick or have other emergencies. One-third of jobs have been cut over the past six years, and the remaining workers now have to work longer hours under abusive conditions to maintain the bosses’ profits.
The greed of the railroad bosses knows no boundaries; the bosses, like Buffett, threatened to hold the economy hostage by limiting service and locking out workers if they didn’t get their way. President Biden’s attempt to intervene and prevent a strike was a poorly disguised and time-tested method of ensuring that the billionaires maintain their profits. The “compromise plan” put forward by the Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board tried to completely undermine the workers and keep them quiet.
Unlike many other unionized industries, rail and air workers are governed under the RLA, which sets a series of tightly controlled legal steps that these unions must follow in the process of negotiation. In order to understand the current situation in rail, one has to understand the Railway Labor Act as the product of a long history of labor struggles and the U.S. government’s responses to it.
Most unions in the United States are regulated under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB allows far more leeway to how negotiations are conducted, and the legal conditions for how, when, and why recognized unions may choose to strike. By contrast, the RLA specifies the forms and steps of contract negotiations, and also limits what things the workers may strike over. The RLA serves as a means to replace the threat of strikes with mediation and arbitration, in this critical sector for U.S. capital.
The Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC), comprised of 10 unions, began negotiations with the carriers in 2020. The CBC represented 105,000 workers. The carriers stalled and (as per the RLA) moved the unions into a process of arbitration. The carriers would not consent to the demands of the unions unless they also got smaller crew sizes (meaning hiring less people and more work for the remaining employees).
After two years of fruitless negotiations, on Jan. 24, 2022, the CBC sought mediation from federal authority, the NMB, again, as per the RLA process. The carriers continued to stall, and also hoped to divide and weaken the CBC by making individual agreements with the individual unions. This tactic did not work; according to the unions, the opposite happened, and the coalition grew in size to 12 unions, in defiance of the tricks of the bosses.
On June 15, after six months of mediation, the NMB gave an offer, which was rejected by the unions unanimously. This prepared the way for a legal strike, which would begin 30 days after the rejection of the mediation.
President Biden steps in
Before the official July 11 date of the strike, President Biden stepped in on behalf of the capitalists (and on behalf of the Democrats’ chances in the 2022 midterm elections) to avoid what could be a very disruptive strike. Biden appointed an emergency mediation board to settle the dispute, a mere two days before the strike would have commenced. The unions and the carriers presented their case to this “neutral” board, which presented its recommendations publicly on Aug. 16. With this, according to the RLA, a second 30-day cooling off period before a strike began.
The Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations still did not satisfy the unions, as many concessions, like changes to medical leave, were still not granted. Negotiations continued until Sept. 15, when the supposedly “final” recommendation was made public. President Biden hailed this as a “big win for America” and “a victory for railway companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers for an industry that will continue to be part of the backbone of the American economy for decades to come.”
Biden’s remarks in the White House Rose Garden continued, “I’m optimistic that we can do this in other fields as well. Unions and management can work together for the benefit of everyone,” i.e., the workers can continue to be pliable to the whims of management.
The railroad bosses, unsurprisingly, supported the deal. It brought a tense standoff to an end and, in their minds, prevented a strike that would have cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars per day. This is also important for U.S. and world capitalism, as growing social unrest, in nearly every country, is accompanied by growing support for unions and a (slightly) heightened union militancy in recent years. A U.S. rail strike would have more than merely economic reverberations.
Were the presidential recommendations actually good for the rail workers? No. Union leaders state, quite correctly we think, that preventing the employers from using crew sizes as a stalling tactic is a win. The latest recommendation includes cumulative wage increases, and a $1000 sign-on bonus (the bribe). But other provisions are not so good. Most issues with time off still apply. President Biden’s board only gave the workers a single additional personal day. Workers also get three annual medical care visits—which need to be scheduled a month in advance.
As reported in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, conductor Jon Hauger says it’s “a complete joke” and “you can’t plan out 30 days in advance. … It’s offensive. … This was 100% a way to avert a strike by an industry that is the very backbone of this nation’s economy prior to the midterms.”
Rank-and-file workers vote NO!
At the same time, rank-and-file workers at BNSF are still looking for an end to the so-called “Hi Vis” policy. As we reported previously, the Hi Vis policy assigns workers a strict points system for every unscheduled personal day and, if we do the math, could only be fully accumulated after months of continuous work without a day off. The latest agreement touches none of this.
Railroaders are seeing right through the employer’s tricks. It’s no surprise that when the union leadership returned to their membership with a tentative agreement that did not address the bosses’ harsh attendance policies, it was rejected.
The Facebook page of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division released a statement on the rejected agreement that quoted union President Tony D. Cardwell: “The majority of the BMWED membership rejected the tentative national agreement and we recognize and understand that result,” Cardwell said. “I trust that railroad management understands that sentiment as well. Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard. Railroaders do not feel valued. They resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness. The result of this vote indicates that there is a lot of work to do to establish goodwill and improve the morale that has been broken by the railroads’ executives and Wall Street hedge fund managers.”
Many of the 640 comments on Facebook urged the union leadership to bring back a better deal. One worker wrote, “Rejected! Now will the union leaders please listen to what the majority wants and not give in so easy and take the easy road to avoid arbitrations and actually do their job that they were voted in to do!” Another worker said, “It would’ve been a yes for me with sick days. Can’t believe after a pandemic we still can’t bargain for sick days.” The same worker concluded, “An extra week of vacation, Rollover sick days, and 25% raise, 15% cap on insurance and I’d be happy.”
One big looming question is how the membership of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) will vote on the contract. A comment on the BMWED Facebook page seems to indicate there is at least a rumbling of disapproval from the membership. The commentator said, “BLET member here. I am at Norfolk Southern’s largest terminal in Chicago, IL. I have had the chance to talk to at least 200 or more UTU and BLET members. I can tell you with absolute certainty that not one of them will be voting anything but NO. A HUGE MAJORITY OF THOSE ARE NOT JUST CONCERNED WITH SICK DAYS EITHER. MYSELF AND AND A SIGNIFICANT MAJORITY WILL NOT BE CONTRIBUTING MORE FOR HEALTHCARE AND REQUIRE SUBSTANTIAL PAY INCREASES!”
Toward a strike in U.S. rail
If the other unions ratify the new contract, then the struggle on rail will, at least for a time, be subdued. But this will not mean that the workers won’t be exploited—nor will it change any of the above mentioned issues with PTO procedures and sick time. These issues will crop up again in one form or another, and if the history of the U.S. labor struggle in all its forms indicates one thing, it is that future perturbations are assured.
If more unions reject the contract, it does not necessarily guarantee a strike. The U.S. government and the carriers would much rather draw out the negotiation process and make the unions weary, rather than risk a strike. Chances are high that some other legal tool would be used to delay the struggle. There is really only one certain way that rail workers can get what they want, and that is through struggle—legal or illegal.
In 2020, during the BMWED negotiations with Union Pacific over issues with COVID that we mentioned earlier, the union found itself hit with court injunctions. A strike would have meant breaking the court’s restraining order, resulting in a hefty lawsuit, and tying up the union’s resources in legal proceedings for the foreseeable future. Not striking meant conditions stayed the same and workers continued to risk their lives. What can workers do in this situation?
The capitalist courts exist to maintain the legal rights of the employer. Rarely do the courts side with workers, and breaking an injunction is serious business. Historically, because of their centrality to production and capitalist profits, railroad workers have had to take bold actions by defying the courts and the politicians, and by taking on the police and National Guard in the process.
Wildcat strikes that resist court injunctions, like the Pullman strike in 1894 led by Eugene Debs, require that the union rally to their side all the support of organized labor and broader layers of society. To the degree that the Pullman strike was successful, solidarity strikes, boycotts, and massive fundraising were necessary across the country. The threat, alone, of withholding their labor, has caused a murmur among the capitalist class and its press, and has made the rich and powerful begin to sweat.
Support of unions and workplace organizing is at recent highs, especially among the youth. Immense popular support exists for the struggles of the Amazon workers, who are unionizing in defiance of vile campaigns of slander and intimidation. UPS, too, may see one of the country’s largest strikes. In the past few years, teachers, cereal makers, machinists, miners, autoworkers, transit workers, nurses, and many others have struck, with mixed results.
Even the typical tricks of racism, while still a viable buffer for the capitalists, are a weakened tool. Recent mass struggles against racism, against gender inequality, and against the oppression of migrant laborers—the typical methods used by the bosses to divide workers—attest to a growing consciousness of solidarity within the working class, and points to a desire, however ill defined, to construct a new society without oppression.
What would a strike in the rail sector do, besides cost the wealthy $2 billion a day? The rail unions would set a dangerous example, one that the capitalists would prefer to avoid. The rail workers would get the solidarity of the struggling workers of this country, and show, whatever the outcome, what it actually looks like to struggle for our right to a good life!
This struggle is also international. Rail workers in Britain have been on strike since June of this year. Rail participated in the French national strike. This sector has seen strike actions in Belgium, and the Italian rail workers have been mobilizing. Thus, even if the workers isolate themselves within narrow craft lines, the railway workers have brothers and sisters across the world on their side.
The capitalist class correctly understands, even if intuitively, that the class war never ends. It is of paramount importance to them that we, the working class, do not see this truth as they do. It is imperative that the unions of the CBC close ranks against any attempt by the carriers or the U.S. government to make back-room deals with individual unions, or otherwise intimidate its members. The CBC must act in unison to secure its members’ right to a good life!
In the event of a rail strike, Workers Voice calls for a united front of support and solidarity to the strike, including all groups of struggle against social and national oppression, until the CBC’s demands are met by the carriers and by the U.S. government. The decision of the CBC’s members must be backed by all of organized labor.
Workers’ Voice stands with railroaders who are sick and tired of the bosses’ abuse and want to fight back. The rank-and-file members of the BMWED have made their opinion against insufficient contracts clear. The Biden administration also exposed the role of politicians in Washington. The Democrats and Republicans are on the side of the bosses and only exist to help maximize the bosses’ profits. Should there be a strike, we’ll be there walking the picket lines, building solidarity, and raising strike funds alongside you.
Part II: Background on the railroad workers’ struggle
The accumulation of capital in rail
A few comments on the evolution of the railroad industry might be helpful. In the 1970s there were approximately 600,000 rail workers in the U.S. at any given time. Today, there are just over 150,000. The reasons are related to the development of technology and cut-cutting by the bosses. As a general rule, under capitalism, those who own the means of production and exchange will introduce technology to increase efficiency and scale, and reduce the time of production and the needed manpower. This has nothing to do with a desire to alleviate human toil, and is purely a matter of profits, competition with other capitalists, and class war against the workers.
There is therefore a duel effect in the development of capitalism: more people are brought into production as more hands are needed to operate tools and produce stuff. On the other hand, in certain industries, people are also thrown out of production, due to an increase in efficiency. As capitalism has developed historically, humanity was brought into mass production as workers (on a national and international scale), and these same workers are subjected to the whims of cycles of production, boom and bust, profitability and investment, etc. This process, however, gives the working class more potential power, and also in a duel way. As the working class grows greater in size, in all industries less workers are needed to produce the same stuff. The result is both that there are more workers in the world, and that workers in key industries have more power to disrupt the economy through strikes.
Thus, it would be wrong to assume that just because there are less railroad workers in total, these workers have less power. This is far from the truth. As modern capitalism has progressed, more companies are relying on highly efficient and lean systems of exploitation, and so-called “just-in-time” delivery schedules result in a tighter economy overall. Workers in key sectors, therefore, have more potential power than they might have once had.
Brief history of railroad labor struggles
We can begin with the classic example of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The strike began as a response of workers to the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad’s cutting wages for a third time in a year. The West Virginia governor at the time called for federal assistance to quell the rioting—since local militias were sympathetic to the striking workers. Workers at this time had practically no trade unions, and so had to fight hired company goons, and the National Guard, for basic rights we enjoy today.
While the uprising was violently suppressed, the worker militancy forced the company to make many concessions to the workers, such as pensions and medical assistance, in order to avoid future headaches. From this, and other worker uprisings, the U.S. ruling class learned many lessons. Over the course of the next 50 years, a series of laws attempting to regulate rail labor and control the disputes between the bosses and the workers were implemented—with poor results.
The Arbitration Act was implemented in 1888 and was only used once, in response to the Pullman Strike, another rail uprising that required violent suppression by the U.S. government. It was replaced by the Erdman Act, (outlawing several anti-union hiring practices that companies had engaged in) and then the Newlands Labor Act, (which created the Board of Mediation for the industry), both of which became irrelevant once the U.S. nationalized the railways as it entered World War I.
The nationalization of rail as an essential component in the U.S. war machine would only increase the pressures to tightly manage the rail workers, but this nonetheless gave the workers something of a bargaining advantage . Rail unions during this period had threatened to strike in order to get better hours and pay. President Wilson signed the Adamson Act in 1916 to grant the workers many concessions, including the eight-hour day. But none of this would prevent Wilson from returning rail to the “original owners,” i.e., capitalists, once the war was over.
After this re-privatization, the U.S. Rail Administration was replaced by the Railroad Labor Board. This government body become widely unpopular when it sided with the bosses and ordered a 12 percent reduction in wages starting in 1921, as a result of reduced production after the war. In response, 400,000 rail workers walked off the job, and The Great Railroad Strike of 1922 commenced.
Battles using clubs, guns, knives, and bombs ensued. The companies hired scabs to replace the workers, and goons to beat them into submission. Ten people lost their lives, and in the end the strike was defeated when the courts and federal government (surprise!) sided with the capitalists. It did not help the strike that the workers were divided by craft and by racism .
Evidently, the RLB was an inadequate tool. Further negotiations between unions and the big railroad companies resulted in the modern Railway Labor Act in 1926. The mediation board was preserved, and made into a permanent institution in 1934—the National Mediation Board (NMB). In 1936, U.S. airline workers were also covered by this law.
The next major rail strike was during the strike wave of 1945, when four million workers from multiple industries struck, of which 250,000 were rail workers. The result of this action was the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, a piece of anti-labor legislation that put numerous restrictions on when unions have the legal right to strike. This was a victory for the bosses.
The 1966 New York City Transit Workers strike and the 1992 railroad strike were the next notable labor actions in rail, significant for their economic damage and the response of the ruling class. The 1966 strike lasted for 13 days, and utterly paralyzed New York, hitting many parts of economic life in the city and having repercussions outside of New York. The union leadership was arrested. Nonetheless, most of the demands of the striking workers were met, and it was decidedly a victory for the workers.
In the 1992 strike, rail workers represented by the International Union of Machinists stopped work for only two days. At the time, the White House reported that $1 billion was lost to the economy each day, over $2 billion in today’s money. U.S. rail was utterly stopped, despite the fact that only CSX employees were striking. Congress and the Senate responded with great speed to halt the strike. They made a new, complex emergency law that forced arbitration unto the workers. With the passing of this bill, signed into law by President Bush, we are left with the current process of the RLA as it stands today.
In December 2020, as the COVID pandemic surged, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Ways Employees (BMWE), threatened to strike Union Pacific (UP) over COVID-19 and safety conditions on the job. BMWE, which represents 8000 members, has stated that hundreds have contracted the virus at work, dozens have been hospitalized, and two members have died. The union issued a letter to UP on Dec. 17 with the following demands:
- Continuation of pay, which would encourage employees to be tested for contracting the coronavirus, since they would not feel compelled to go to work because of fear of losing their earnings.
- Access to testing on the job site and on company time.
- Temperature testing prior to work shifts.
- Contact tracing following an exposure at work.
- Daily access to personal protective equipment such as facemasks and hand cleaners, as well as adequate sanitation supplies in group areas and for machines and locomotives.
- Social distancing requirements in public-use areas.
UP covers more than 32,000 miles of track and ships billions of dollars in freight. Like other railroad companies, UP has received substantial sums of federal bailout money. Instead of using that bailout money to implement the workers’ demands, UP immediately sought a court injunction to halt any workplace actions over COVID safety. And again, the courts intervened on the behalf of the railroad bosses.
The history of U.S. rail struggles reasonably demonstrates three facts about the capitalist state: (1) It exists to keep the capitalists in power, and the institutions of the presidency, Senate, Congress, and the courts serve this end. 2) Its laws are the product of a struggle between labor and the capitalists, either reacting to the advance of the working class, or acting as an attack by the capitalist class. (3) Every advance of the workers was the result of a determined struggle of the workers themselves—which at all times the capitalists seek to roll back.
Photo: LM Otero / AP