Amtrak Workers: a Looming Strike, Railway Workers Unite!

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Organized labor in the U.S. is fast approaching a crossroads. The enormous successes of the past are under attack, putting the unions in a defensive position. Battling not only the companies but their own bureaucracy, the rank and file of various powerful unions find themselves facing extraordinary sell-out contracts approved by their “leadership,” but benefiting only the company. The struggle to defeat these sell-out contracts may well be the opening clashes of a revival of the U.S. labor movement, which has lain dormant for decades, but which by its very nature may lead to larger conflict. It is in this context that Amtrak workers have dealt a temporary blow to the trend of concession and showcased their growing political consciousness when, after bargaining for 8 years, a coalition of 10 Amtrak unions either rejected revolting tentative agreements that their union “leaders” had brokered with Amtrak, or refused to continue the seemingly now-pointless process of bargaining.

This has put Amtrak workers on a collision course with management, i.e., the federal government. The creation of an “illegal” coalition of Amtrak unions to bargain – “illegal” because it violates the Railway Labor Act – was the first progressive step in increasing the power of the workers. Now nine unions are poised to strike Amtrak, and if it weren’t for a “Presidential Emergency Board” (PEB) that intervened, they’d be picketing already. The PEB – consisting of all Bush appointees – must now decide if every avenue of arbitration has been tried, when everyone already knows that it already has. The PEB was officially established on Dec. 1st, and in 60 days, if no agreement is reached, the parties will be free to act themselves. For the workers this will mean striking. For the bosses, this will mean imposing their terms of employment and destroying the gains of the past.

A nationwide Amtrak strike could be the first major labor battle in the U.S. in quite some time, giving those workers who find themselves under similar attack an example to follow. The different leaders of the nine “renegade” unions are reacting differently to the PEB. While some remain cautious about the outcome, others are using the militant language needed to ready the rank and file for a strike, gearing up their unions for its ultimate test.
Not only this, but rank and file rail workers in various unions have created a new solidarity organization, Railroad Workers United (RWU), just in time for the Amtrak battle. The RWU is the result of years of rank and file work to complete the work first begun by the great socialist Eugene Debs over a hundred years ago (when he was a “mere” railroad unionist), as outlined in the program of the RWU:

* Unity of all Railroad Crafts
* An End to Inter-Union Conflict
* Rank-and-file Democracy
* Union Membership Education, Participation and Action
* Solidarity: “An Injury to One is an Injury to All!”
* Coordinated Bargaining – No to Concessions

To achieve these absolutely necessary goals, specific activities have been named to help orient the rank and file:

* Support candidates, who actively support RWU goals and principles, for leadership positions in the various unions.
* Support movements for democracy and accountability within the various rail unions
* Build unity between unions at the next round of bargaining.
* Act as a solidarity organization locally, regionally and nationally by building awareness and support for each others’ job actions, strikes, etc.
* Develop a newsletter to be distributed continent wide with news and views about the rail labor unity movement and various struggles across North America.
* Develop and maintain an up-to-the-minute website to augment the newsletter, providing railroaders with timely information about rank-and-file issues.
* Support mergers between rail unions where they make sense and empower the rank-and-file.
* Build local chapters in terminals to more effectively recruit new members, build solidarity at the base, and support the general organization.
* Get behind national legislative campaigns that would benefit rail workers, facilitate union organizing, and benefit the working class in general.

This is the language of a militant trade union solidarity organization, with the potential for the development of a genuine class struggle current that can serve as an example for the working class as a whole in a time of uncertainty for workers everywhere. Some of the biggest railway unions have signed on to the RWU, either because of their instincts for survival, or due to persistent rank and file pressure. Armed with a class struggle perspective and leadership, this new organization has the potential to transform the balance of forces in the railway industry, which would give the workers an advantage they haven’t had in decades. Their first practical test must be an effective, nationwide solidarity campaign for Amtrak workers.

Disgracefully absent in the upcoming Amtrak battle is the train engineers’ union, the BLET, which was originally part of the bargaining coalition, but has failed to make the tough – albeit commonsense – decisions about the fruitlessness of further bargaining, and the necessity to fight. An analysis of the role played by the BLET leadership may help to explain why this key union is not making preparations to fight.

The BLET’s chairman, Mark Kenny, had the gall to present a uniquely hideous contract to his membership, resembling a skilled contortionist as he linguistically bent and twisted the wording of the contract to make it appear good for workers. But the rank and file’s ability to see through the jargon, distortions, and general hopelessness that their chairman produced in order to sway them towards a YES vote was impressive. Kenny’s 17 page letter – filled with a combination of threats and despair – all but demanded that the workers approve the contract; as rejection of it would lead to a PEB, or other measures forced upon the union by government agencies (when in fact the government can do no such thing). In short, he argued that the workers were powerless. And powerless people, as a logical consequence, must accept horrible contracts, at least according to Kenny.

Amtrak’s BLET workers disagreed and rejected the proposed contract 561 to 296, with a high rate of abstention. Apparently, they do not share the demoralizing cynicism that has infected their chairman. They want – and deserve – better, and are not willing to play dead while Amtrak steamrolls them as the rejected contract demanded.

Kenny promptly responded to the rank and file’s decision in a letter to the workers, where he made it perfectly clear he was going to do absolutely nothing. The tone of the letter was an emotionless, “I-told-ya-so” surrender. The workers, as is implied in every rejected contract, were demanding that their leadership fight for their interests. Instead, Kenny wrote:

“…anticipating the strong likelihood that we will find ourselves before a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) in bringing this matter to a conclusion, we retained the Washington, DC law firm of Bredhoff & Kaiser as legal counsel for the remainder of the bargaining process in this round. As some of you may remember, this firm represented us 15 years ago in our successful ‘baseball arbitration’…”

What is worse is that the BLET is seeking to settle its own contract while nine other Amtrak unions are gearing up for a strike, shattering any pretense of union solidarity. Whether Kenny’s actions are treacherous or merely short-sighted, the concrete results are what matter in the end. After all is said and done, he will merely shrug his shoulders to the membership and say, “this is the best we could do, we tried everything!” However, what differs between the present situation and 15 years ago is that, this time, Amtrak is obstinate in its demands – compromise and reform are things of the past. Kenny himself recognizes this, otherwise he wouldn’t have recommended the membership accept such a rancid contract. The fact that he now feels comfortable sending the matter to an arbitrator should send shivers up the spines of the rank-and-file.

The BLET rank and file must build pressure in the union to fight alongside the other unions of the coalition, who, at this point, have February 1st as a possible strike date. A nationwide Amtrak strike will show the workers just how powerful they are, as commuter traffic in major cities will grind to a halt.

There must be no confusion about the importance of the upcoming confrontation: it is a key struggle for Amtrak workers. If the upcoming strike is defeated, all of Amtrak’s demands will be eventually pushed through, including the contracting out of work, which would lay the ground for the eventual destruction of the union.

Unfortunately, like the vast majority of today’s top union officials, Kenny has adopted a policy of partnership with the employers based on the false assumption that what is good for the bosses is good for the workers. But given that bosses always strive to lower production costs at the expense of workers’ wages and conditions, the interests of workers and their employers are in fact diametrically opposed. What is most important is to organize a concerted fight back against the company, despite the defeatism of the current “leadership”. A network of nationally coordinated strike committees should be democratically elected in every shop around the country, which would function as a representative, fighting leadership accountable to the rank and file in preparation for the strike and during the strike’s duration.
These committees could then establish working relations with other unions.

In addition, the railway Teamster workers must pressure their leadership– while doing active rank and file outreach– to mobilize the Teamster union as a whole, since both the BLET and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (one of the 9 PEB unions) are both Teamster affiliates. The Teamster leadership has yet to do anything for the Amtrak workers, but if their strength was utilized in coordination with other rail workers, the strike would be unstoppable. As a start, the Teamsters should keep their membership informed of developments at Amtrak and opening a discussion among the rank and file as to how to build inter-union and community solidarity in the event of a strike.

Utilizing the full strength of the RWU unions is a must. Every union within Rail Workers United must fight for the victory of the upcoming Amtrak confrontation. The outcome will affect all rail workers with either a resounding victory or massive defeat; either way a truly important precedent will have been created.

Also, public outreach must be utilized effectively if Amtrak workers are to connect their struggle to the general public, especially as many of them will see their daily lives disrupted by a strike. This means explaining and showing in practice that this is a struggle that affects all workers, that Amtrak workers were forced by the government’s intransigence to go on strike. Demanding that the U.S. government not only maintain, but massively expand and modernize passenger railway would gain the attention of millions of working people who would benefit from an expanded, safe and affordable railway service.

* No settlement until all settle – An injury to one is an injury to all!
* No to privatization – massively fund passenger railway!
*  No concessions!

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