By JOHN LESLIE
On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the House of Representatives passed HJR100 in a bipartisan vote with 290 votes for and 137 votes against the tentative rail agreement. Seventy-nine Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill. Only eight Democrats voted against the bill. Additionally, the House voted to pass a provision, advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders as well as several House “progressives,” to add seven paid sick days to the new agreement. Only three Republicans voted in yes in this second vote.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, the Senate moved quickly, voting 80 to 15 for the House measure to impose the tentative agreement between freight rail carriers and rail unions. The Senate then rejected the proposal to add seven sick days to the contract. According to The Hill, “The sick-leave measure needed at least 60 votes to pass and fell short, 52 to 43. Six Republicans voted for it: Sens. Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).” Joe Manchin, owned by the energy sector, was the sole Democrat in the Senate to vote against the sick leave measure.
Some Republicans like Hawley and Rubio postured to Biden’s left in the run up to the vote. Prior to the vote, Rubio stated, “Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should. It is wrong for the Biden Administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected.”
Following the vote, Hawley released a statement, “Today the Senate had the chance to stand up for railroad workers who frequently risk their lives and health on the job, just trying to support their families. Instead, the Senate sided with Joe Biden. Workers were asking for a handful of sick days per year. Biden and the Senate said no.”
Before the measure was sent to Congress, “Proud pro-labor President” Biden and Pelosi made it very clear whose side they were on in this fight between the railroad bosses and workers. Biden stated, “Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy. … Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down.” Nancy Pelosi echoed Biden, saying, “We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement—but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.” According to the Washington Post, Pelosi pledged that the House would not change the terms of the September agreement, “which would challenge the Senate to approve the House bill without changes.”
In response, Ross Grooters, an engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United (RWU), stated, “By forcing workers into an agreement which doesn’t address basic needs like healthcare and sick time, President Joe Biden is choosing railroads over workers and the economy.”
Sanders pledged to “block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers in America.” Senate rules allow one Senator to block consideration of a bill. However, Sanders’ proposal was inadequate since rail workers’ unions have been demanding 15 paid sick days. Ultimately, Sanders failed to block the bill, knowing that the measure adding sick leave to the tentative agreement would fail.
After the vote, Daniel Kindlon, a freight yard electrician and local union head near Albany, stated, “It’s going to be like having a strike without having a strike. … I’m telling you now, as soon as Congress decides to jam this contract down the BMWED and BLET and SMART guys’ throats, you will see a mass exodus like no mass exodus from any industry ever.”
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien tweeted, “The big rail carriers have already made it clear that they only care about making massive profits, not the safety and health of workers. Why should rail executives & members of Congress have paid sick time, but rail workers don’t get a single paid sick day?”
The Squad taps out
After speaking out in favor of railroad workers’ right to a decent contract, members of the so-called Squad, who are seen by many as “left-wing” Democrats, voted on Wednesday to impose the rotten deal put forward by the Democratic Party leadership. They showed clearly that there is a contradiction between their words of support and their actions. Actually, the core of their pro-capitalist politics is expressed in their votes; their tweets are just a communications ploy to cover up their actions.
Except for Rashida Tlaib, these Democrats voted for House Joint Resolution (HJR) 100, which was intended to impose a settlement on the workers.
The “Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Cori Bush (D-Mo.)—all expressed support for the rights and dignity of the rail workers. Nevertheless, except for Talib, they all voted for HJR 100. Four of these members of Congress—Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Bush, and Bowman—are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Prior to the vote, Omar tweeted, “Railroad workers are asking for paid sick time, it’s a simple dignified request. We stand with them and will do everything in our power to make sure their request is granted. Railroad corporations are making record profits and shouldn’t put profits over people.”
Ocasio-Cortez also tweeted her support for the workers, urging them to “stay strong” and proclaiming, “we’ve got your back.” Prior to the Wednesday vote, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that she stood with rail workers who were demanding the “basic dignity of paid sick days.”
Jamaal Bowman also tweeted, “Rail workers can’t schedule getting the flu on a Tuesday 30 days in advance. What we’re seeing is an inhumane deal being pushed onto workers even after a majority voted it down. If we are a pro-labor party, we must stand up for them. They need paid sick leave now.” Bowman faced calls for his expulsion from the Democratic Socialists of America last year for his support for voting to allocate $3.3 billion for military aid for Israel and an additional $1 billion for Iron Dome funding.
On Wednesday, the Democratic Socialists of America issued a statement in solidarity with rail workers. The statement called on “Biden and members of Congress to force the billionaire railroad bosses to accept workers’ demands. Short of that, railroad workers must not be denied the right to strike. The Tentative Agreement has been rejected by members of the Maintenance of Way Union (BMWE), Sheet Metal and Rail Union (SMART-TD), Signalmen (BRS), and Boilermakers union (IBB), and though some union ratification votes supported it, the approval margins were narrow. All rail unions have pledged to honor the picket line in the event of a strike.”
It further stated that “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.”
This statement shines a harsh light on the votes of their elected members of Congress. So far, there has been no statement from the DSA about how their members voted. As a social democratic organization, they exert no discipline over the actions of their members who hold office.
This moment must stand as a challenge to the ranks of the DSA. Is the DSA a socialist organization or a toothless entity that lets vile strikebreakers be counted as members?
Railroad Workers United open letter
On Wednesday, Railroad Workers United, a cross-union organization of activist workers in the industry, issued a scathing response to this attack on workers’ rights. Its “Open Letter to Congress and the President” urges Congress “to rescind and reject President Biden’s proposal for Congress to force rail carriers and rail workers to accept a tentative contract agreement that has been rejected by four out of the 12 railroad unions. These four unions represent the majority of workers on the nation’s freight railroads, and by pushing through a tentative agreement that a majority of rank-and-file union members have declared completely unsatisfactory, President Biden and Congress would be overriding the democratically expressed will of railroad workers.”
The Open Letter continues, “Under the threat of a railroad strike, which will cripple the U.S. economy if executed, the opportunity has opened up for all working people in the country to stand in solidarity with railroad workers and demand what we deserve, the right to live in dignity.”
The Open Letter closes with demands to address the current situation. These include nationalization of the railroads, Universal Paid Family and Sick Leave, passage of the PRO Act, and funding the NLRB.
It’s not just about sick days.
Guy Miller, a retired railroad worker, wrote in a Facebook post: “The full story is not being told. The unions’ demand for a few sick days makes it sound as if 7 or 15 sick days were being added to a normal life. A road conductor or engineer has zero scheduled days off: Zero weekends. Zero personal days. Zero holidays. Zero sick days. Their only free time is governed by the inevitable telephone call, a call that may come at 2AM, 4AM, 7:15AM, the middle of a family dinner, while driving their kids home from school, or sitting in the waiting room of their dentist: anytime day or night. And when it comes they have two hours to report to work. That’s when they’re home. The same wait repeats when they’re in a hotel room 120 miles from home. Try living like that, day after day, year after year, sick or well, and the importance of sick days comes into focus.”
This brutal workplace regime is the fruit of the bosses slashing of rail jobs in hopes of extracting more profits from the backs of the workers who remain. During the past two years, railroad traffic has increased and profits have soared. Profit margins for railroads stand at more than 50%—the highest rate of profit for any industry in the US.
Ash Anderson of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) is quoted as saying, “There were no provisions to improve the quality of life for rail workers, who continue to be exploited by companies that are earning record-breaking profits while their service suffers and they cut their workforce to the bone.”
Rail workers face a hard choice. They can swallow the unpalatable contract being forced down their throats, or they can take collective action on the job. A wildcat strike is a risky proposition, but when your back is to a wall, you sometimes have no other choice. A rail strike would be illegal, but could still be won. It would require the solidarity and mobilization of the entire workers’ movement.
Biden, despite his pro-labor claims, would be in the same position Ronald Reagan was in when he broke the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike. Sectors of the labor movement stood aside when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and what followed was an orgy of union busting and lost strikes. This is an existential question for our unions. Do you fight for your members or lick the Democrats’ boots? If a strike occurs, the Democrats must be forced to pay a dire price for breaking this strike.
Biden, Pelosi, and every member of Congress who voted for this sham are strikebreakers and deserve to be called out for it. Socialists support the right to organize and strike unconditionally. The Democrats have demonstrated, once again, their incapacity to act as a pro-working-class party. The Democrats are not our friends; they are the enemy. They are not an “arena of struggle.” They are a trap.
Moreover, this episode shows once again that in the fundamental questions such as strike and union rights, immigrant rights, militarism, foreign policy, or dismantling the police and prison system, there is no real difference between DSA-backed “progressive“ Democrats and the other Democrats. They all follow the party line, which represents the interest of U.S. corporations.
Furthermore, the state that these politicians serve is not neutral; the state is owned and controlled by the tiny ruling class. In his book “State and Revolution,” Lenin made it clear: “According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order,’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes. … In reality, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.”
Union tops had a hard time selling Biden to the members as a candidate in 2020. This knife in the back can only deepen workers’ doubts and disaffection regarding the Democrats. In politics and the labor movement, one of the most basic questions was raised years ago in the miners’ struggles of Harlan County, Ky.—“which side are you on?”
The Democrats like to talk about being pro-labor as well as fighting for people on other issues, but time and again they fail the Harlan County test. Worse is the role played by the housebroken progressives and “socialists” in that party. They talk about workers with great sincerity and then slide the knife into the workers’ backs.
This moment recalls the empty promise of Obama when he was running for president in 2008, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America.” Of course, Obama never walked that line for a second and failed to deliver on labor law reforms that would make organizing easier.
We agree with the RWU demands to nationalize the railroads, for Universal Paid Family and Sick Leave, passage of the PRO Act, and funding the NLRB. However, this is not going to happen without an independent mass struggle in the unions and society. It also means that the unions have to cut the umbilical cord that attaches them to the Democrats and build a party of our own.
Further, the labor movement should be calling for all workers to have the right to a job at top union wages and for a public works jobs program to make this happen. Additionally, a sliding scale of wages and hours must be implemented to both guarantee jobs and ensure that wages keep pace with inflation. Finally, since the rail bosses claim that they can’t “afford” to give paid sick leave despite their massive profits, we say, “Open the rail bosses’ books.”
Photo: Outgoing House leader and multi-millionaire Nancy Pelosi greets so-called “left-winger” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)