Editorials

Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership; Workers Need Our Own Party


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At the “urgent appeal” of President Biden, the U.S. Senate voted 80 – 15 on December 1 to impose a contract settlement previously rejected by four unions representing a majority of railroad workers and by thousands who voted “No” in eight other unions. The House of Representatives approved a similar measure, which Biden swiftly signed into law on December 2.

A separate bill would have added seven days paid sick leave to the new national rail contract. It was no surprise that it failed. Biden firmly opposed any changes to the contract that his administration brokered in September on the eve of a national strike deadline.

Rail workers are angry and frustrated by this outcome. Rank-and-file rail workers refused to accept Biden’s deal that top union leaders claimed was the best contract possible. The ranks of the unions spoke out, explained the intolerable conditions of work and life they face every day, and won support from millions of working people.


EDITORIAL


Without rank-and-file resistance, no resolution on sick pay would have been considered. Without rank-and-file resistance, those brutal conditions would have remained unknown to other working people.

Biden led the way

On the day Biden demanded action by Congress to prevent railroad workers from exercising their democratic right to strike, he piously insisted he was “a proud pro-labor president.” Actions, however, speak louder than words.

Such sanctimonious posturing by politicians was on full display. While 52 senators voted for the bill to provide paid sick leave (knowing it did not have the 60-vote supermajority needed for passage — an anti-democratic Senate rule enjoying bipartisan support), 80 backed the imposition of the contract and banning a strike, as did the large majority of the House.

Again, Biden took the lead. At a White House news conference, “Mr. Biden bristled at a question about why he had not insisted on more paid leave for rail workers in the deal, saying that he had ‘negotiated a contract no one else can negotiate,’” reported the New York Times.

Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis and North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, both Republicans, made this absurd and pretentious argument: “It is in the best interest of all parties that the railroads, not Congress, work through issues such as paid leave directly with their employees.” They then voted for Congress to settle all the issues in favor of the rail barons! Any rail worker could have told them the railroads stubbornly refused for over two years to “work through issues such as paid leave directly with their employees.”

“This one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable,” said Railroad Workers United (RWU) general secretary Jason Doering. (RWU is a rank-and-file group that brings together members of all rail unions.) “Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time.”

Top union officials responded differently. In a servile statement, SMART TD, which represents conductors and others, said, “While it is unfortunate that our members were not able to approve the agreement in which they work under, we thank the President, House Speaker, Senate leadership, and Cabinet members for their support at the negotiating table and on the floor of Congress in an attempt to achieve more for our members.”

Unfortunate? No, outrageous. Support? No, stabbing workers in the back, or, more accurately, showing rail workers the Democrats’ true colors.

The future depends on the union ranks

The rank and file of rail labor has demonstrated — as another top union official was forced to acknowledge — they are “engaged and enraged” by the intolerable working and living conditions they face as a result of the rail carriers’ endless drive for more profit.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail worker monitors departure of freight train in Illinois. After President Biden and Congress undemocratically imposed an antilabor contract on rail workers, banning a strike, the future depends on the actions of the union ranks. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar / AP)

Top officials of the twelve rail unions did not organize and mobilize that rage through the union structures that only exist thanks to the dues paid by the rank and file. Rather than oppose the utterly inadequate Biden “compromise,” they hailed it. They told the union membership they had done the best they could. In so doing, they served the interests of the employers rather than their members. They acted as lieutenants for big business.

There can be little doubt that tens of thousands who rejected the contract — and thousands of others who may have voted for it, resigned that it would be imposed no matter the vote results — thought differently.

Rail-worker resistance shattered the carriers’ plans for business as usual at contract time. That the issues involved in this contract battle were placed front and center in U.S. politics is an achievement of the rank and file of rail labor. What has been accomplished so far can be built on as workers find the ways and means to take control of our unions and use them as they were intended, to better our lives. That includes bringing forward new union leadership from the ranks that will stand up resolutely to the carriers and the government.

It is not only new leaders but new strategies that are required if future battles are to be won. The unions must end the reliance on “friends of labor” among Democrats and Republicans that characterizes the approach of virtually all top union officers and that has failed so miserably. Instead, we need independent action by the ranks of the unions that appeals for solidarity from working people and extends the same to others in struggle.

That includes reasserting the right to strike. That right — collectively withholding our labor to compel an employer to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions — is a basic democratic right. No member of Congress stood up for that right. They have not done so in the past, and we can’t expect them to do so in the future.

No one will “grant” rail workers the right to strike. That right will need to be taken by united labor action when workers are strong enough to stand up to and challenge government dictates and anti-labor laws like the Railway Labor Act. Although it was many years ago, rail labor has a proud history of such united action — from the rail strikes that launched a great labor uprising in 1877, to the 1894 Pullman Strike by the American Railway Union led by Eugene Victor Debs.[1]

In more recent history, it took many years of agitation and protest for women to win their right to vote in 1920. The rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s was marked by sit-down strikes and other forms of militant labor action across the United States; it was not legal then to occupy factories but workers did it anyway. In the 1950s and ’60s the movement for civil rights defied — through powerful mass action, independent of the Democrats and Republicans — and succeeded in overturning an entire web of undemocratic laws denying Black equality.

The ranks of rail labor, like the entire working class, need to find our way back to those traditions of solidarity and struggle.

In its statement on the “one-two punch” dealt to rail labor, RWU raised two additional ideas. World-Outlook believes they deserve the consideration of all working people.

“This fight for justice will continue in the coming months and years,” wrote the RWU. “The rail carriers are too powerful and are a scourge to the national economy,” explained RWU steering committee member Paul Lindsey. “They need to be taken into public ownership and run in the interest of workers, shippers, passengers, and the nation, not a handful of wealthy stockholders.”

RWU organizer Ron Kaminkow added, “We have been played for well over a century by politicians and union officials alike… perhaps the time has come for railroad workers to push for a unified and powerful labor organization of all crafts, together with a political party that will better serve the interest of not just railroad workers but all working-class people.”

World-Outlook agrees. A labor party based on revitalized unions led by the rank and file and independent of the employers and their parties — the Democrats and Republicans — would advance those interests.


For background information see:
BNSF Railroad Workers Resist Cruel Attendance Policy
Railroad Track Maintenance Workers Reject Proposed National Contract
Biden Stabs Rail Labor in the Back
RWU Open Letter to Congress and the President


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NOTES

[1] On December 1, Railroad Workers United published a 1914 essay by Debs — at that time also the best-known leader of the socialist movement — titled, “Revolt of the Railroad Workers.” RWU noted, “The essay featured here outlines the railroad workers’ struggles of the various crafts at that time, and their discontent with the railway bosses together with the ineffective craft union system and the lack of solidarity, unity, and leadership. Today’s readers — over 100 years later — might be astounded at the similarities to today’s issues and struggles that confront railroad workers!” The Debs essay can be read here.


For further reading…

The Great Labor Uprising of 1877

In July of 1877, one year after the celebration of the one hundredth birthday of the United States, the country was prostrate after five years of economic depression. Railroad workers at Martinsburg, West Virginia, went out on strike against still another wage cut.
 
Despite the intervention of the state militia and the US army, the strike extended up the Baltimore & Ohio line and spread rapidly to other lines. The railroad strikes carried the spark of rebellion to other workers in the great cities, including the unemployed.
 
Within a few days, 100,000 workers were on strike in the first nationwide labor upheaval. In St. Louis, the Great Strike developed into a systematically organized and complete shutdown of all industry — the first truly general strike in history.

Eugene V. Debs Speaks

Speeches by the pioneer US socialist agitator and labor leader, jailed for opposing Washington’s imperialist aims in World War I. Debs speaks out on capitalism and socialism; anti-immigrant chauvinism; how anti-Black racism weakens the labor movement; Rockefeller’s massacre of striking miners at Ludlow, Colorado; rail worker’ struggles for industrial unionism; and more.

American Railroads: The Case for Nationalization

This book tells the story of how the building of the railroads enriched America’s ruling families. It recounts the struggles by rail workers for more than a century to unite in an industrial union powerful enough to defend their job conditions and wages against the rail bosses and against strikebreaking by private goons and federal and state officials.
 
It explains why as long as the railroads are operated by capitalists — and the government is run by them to protect their interests — there will never be safe, convenient public transportation and freight services.

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