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Pushed to the Brink, Railroad Workers Take on Biden and Billionaires

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On Thursday morning, September 15, big business media hailed an agreement brokered by the White House between the half dozen corporations that own America’s railroads and the leaders of the three main unions that represent 60% of their 120,000-strong workforce. Biden jubilantly reported that a deal had been struck, but the gains were shockingly minimal: a cap on increases in health care costs, and the ability to take an (read: singular) unpaid sick day. This barely scratches the surface of the scheduling and other workplace issues which led to the strike vote in the first place.

A worker interviewed by The Motherboard website explained what drove the unions to vote by up to 96% margins in favor of going on strike: “We’re only allowed three call offs over 90 days. We can’t call off on the day before or after rest days, scheduled personal leave days or vacation days. If you call off more than three times in 90 days you get a suspension of five days without pay. The discipline stays on your record for three years. If you get two Level 2 discipline violations in three years you’re fired. Miscall, busting someone’s rest, no call no show, as in: work 16 hours three or four days in a row and oversleep, call five minutes after shift starts to say you overslept means getting hit with a “no call no show” charge, Level 2. They make you show up just to send you home. This is a chaotic environment of stress, anxiety and evil. No-one is abusing unpaid time off.”

Backroom Dealmaking With Biden Delivers Bad TA

In a late night meeting with Biden, leaders from the three largest rail unions, representing the locomotive engineers and freight conductors who actually ride the trains and the signallers, agreed to a bad compromise.The other 10 unions involved, representing different job classifications, are now reviewing the Tentative Agreement (TA) as well – though there is lots of confusion about exactly what happened. After the final deal was leaked, the Machinists, who were not directly part of White House negotiations, revealed their members had already rejected the previous – and almost identical – agreement, leaders from SMART-TD, who were part of the negotiations with Biden, issued a statement claiming the final deal had not been released in an attempt to use procedural delays to dodge rank-and-file outrage.

The agreement was touted as avoiding a strike which would have cost the U.S. economy billions and caused a massive spike in the supply chain problems that began with the pandemic. Democrat-supporting mainstream media had harped for days on how a strike would damage their preferred candidates’ chances in November. Missing from these stories was, as usual, the viewpoint of those 120,000 workers. Most of these workers couldn’t care less about the Democrats. Social media pages used by railroaders were filled with comments that were hostile to Biden and even more hostile (and deeply cynical) towards the union leaders.

The fact that the unions had to go to the brink of a national strike just to win the right to see a medical provider, while their members still remain on call and within 90 minutes’ travel time from their worksite for 90% of their time is a sign that the 150 year old struggle for a shorter working day – to be able to live your life without being at the employers’ beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the vast majority of our working lives – is not yet won. 

Railroad Workers Have The Power to Kneecap U.S. Capitalism

It is also a terrible waste of the enormous social power of these essential workers that their leaders are willing to settle for so little when labor as a whole is experiencing a massive awakening. In the five years before the pandemic, the railroad corporations laid off nearly a quarter of their workforce. After all, mega-billionaire Warren Buffet owns BNSF. They made even more money profiteering off the supply chain crisis. 

Because of centralization, automation, and cost cutting, there are less railroad workers today, but those that remain can kneecap U.S. capitalism. For example, in 1947 there were 1.5 million people directly employed by railroads, and each worker generated $5,700 in annual revenue. Today, there are less than 230,000 railroad workers, but each worker generates $330,000 in annual revenue. 

On the contrary, the railroad corporations, having created a crisis of short staffing by laying workers off, then declared that they needed new attendance policies to make sure that trains were staffed. All the major carriers have implemented versions of what they deceptively call “Precision Scheduled Railroading” or PSR. At BNSF, the second largest carrier, owned by liberal billionaire Warren Buffett, the same policy is known – again deceptively – as HiViz. That is the main issue giving rise to the threat to go on strike. 

The traditional method was bad enough. As Vice put it, “Railroads wait for trains to have enough cargo to make it profitable to run them, then they call workers in to run the trains. Once the freight trains reach a certain location – usually a terminal or rail yard – approximately 12 hours from their home terminal, the workers are replaced with a local crew and stay in a hotel, during which time they are waiting unpaid for 18 to 48 hours waiting to get called to take a train back towards home.”

Massive Profits at the Expense of Jobs and Safety

But under PSR, in order to make more profits for the shareholders, train sizes have been massively increased, thousands of workers have been laid off (45,000 just over the past six years), and safety has been flagrantly disregarded in favor of speed-ups. For example, freight cars that workers used to be allowed an average of 3.5 minutes to inspect are now mandated to be “inspected” in 1.4 minutes on average. The effect on rail safety is frightening. The Federal Railroad Administration reports that, since 2012, all of the major railroads had higher rates of train accidents or incidents, higher rates of yard switching accidents, higher rates of equipment defects, and more deaths, all while total train miles were down by roughly 40 percent. A Vice investigation earlier this year uncovered a streak of train derailments that it described as “the all-too-predictable result of … adopting [PSR].” Many, many workers have spoken up fearing that a deadly accident will happen in a major population center before anything is done about this, but these cries have been ignored as shareholders have collected a mind-boggling $183 billion in buybacks and dividends since 2010.

The cutbacks have now come home to roost because – with thousands of workers laid off and no way to quickly replace them, to say nothing of the hundreds of locomotives and other equipment scrapped to cut costs – the railroad corporations lost whatever flexibility they might have had to deal with the supply chain issues arising from the pandemic. These supply chain issues, driven by this and other aspects of so-called “just in time” production, are a key driver of inflation, so in that sense the railroad crisis represents part of the perfect storm of capitalism’s inability to deal with all these problems of its own making. 

The Need to Strike Just to Live Life

In the meantime, workers’ lives are becoming unlivable. With dark humor, the initials BNSF are now said to mean “Better Not Start a Family” but the policies recently implemented by them are no laughing matter. 

Under Hi Viz: “At the start of February, workers got 30 points. Taking time off almost always costs them between two and 15 points. They can only earn points back by being available for work with 90 minutes’ notice for 14 consecutive days, meaning they can’t go out of town, schedule doctors appointments, or go to a movie. Use all 30 points and they get suspended and given 15 more points. Use those 15 points and they get suspended even longer and given their last 15 points. Use those and they’re fired.” 

The one additional concession to allow workers to take unpaid time off to see a doctor will not fundamentally change any of this. The union leaders caved in to the Democrats’ claim that a strike would damage them in November. Workers don’t, won’t, and shouldn’t care about this. Railroad workers should vote down this rotten agreement and keep up the fight to end this war on their lives. 

There are signs that the union leadership already sense that this may happen: as Dennis Pierce, President of  the Teamsters-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET), was quoted as saying on September 16th: “The members did not give up their right to strike. ​If the majority votes no, we will be right back in about eight weeks time to where we sat yesterday.”

Labor Laws Are Written by Bosses – Not Workers

Labor laws are written to help the bosses and this is especially true when it comes to railroads. The Railroad Labor Board was created in 1920, post WWI, when railroad union leader and pioneering socialist Eugene Debs was winning almost a million votes from his jail cell, after being sentenced to ten years in a Federal prison for speaking out against World War. A global wave of working class militancy after that war terrified the ruling class, who struck out viciously, both by sending troops to attack the newborn workers’ government in the Soviet Union, and by a brutal crackdown on labor militancy in the U.S. In this the ruling class was united. A Democratic President – the openly racist Woodrow Wilson – led the attack on workers,  together with Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and the FBI, backed to the hilt by liberals like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who confirmed Debs’ sentence despite its clear violation of the First Amendment. 

The Railroad Labor Board’s first action, in 1921, was to order a 12% reduction in wages, and its next was to declare railroad strikes illegal. The unions fought back, and they won a compromise of sorts in the 1926 Railroad Labor Act, which provides a legal framework for their right to strike. But the law is extraordinarily restrictive, and the judges who interpret it have always favored the employers. Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board is chaired by Ira Jaffee, who began his career representing employers against labor unions. Another member of the three-person board, David Twomey, was first appointed by the union-buster in chief, Ronald Reagan. In the Dollar Democracy, unions will never get fair treatment in the bosses’ courts.

Voting “No” doesn’t mean the entire economy shuts down tomorrow. This story was concocted by the railroad corporations, the Democrats, their friends in the media, and by Biden, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and their corporate pals over fancy meals during their 20-hour session on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, railroad workers hold enormous power – if their union leaders would help them exercise it.

Railroad workers have the chance to play a leading role in revitalizing the labor movement, something which, unlike voting Blue in November, has the potential to make a real difference in working class peoples’ lives, and to show by example that organized labor can do this. This is the real answer to the threat from Trumpism and the far Right, which the Democrats love to threaten us with but have no answer to.

The historic demand of railroad unions, going back to the 19th century Knights of Labor and Eugene Debs’ American Railroad Union, is for key sectors of the economy such as rail transportation to be taken into public ownership, under the democratic control of workers and – in the case of railroads in particular – the communities that the railroads run through. This would be based on a national plan which today would have to take into account the enormous environmental  issues involved. The Democrats will never offer any such solution. Unions need to break with both parties of big business and build a party of our own. 

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