Amtrak Workers: Seven Years Without a Contract

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Amtrak TrainWhat a mess.  After seven years without a contract, a tentative agreement was finally reached between Amtrak and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET- a Teamster affiliate).  While the ink was still drying, a barrage of accusations, hyperbole, and epithets exploded; on one side are the labor bureaucrats running America’s oldest union, the BLET,  and on the other, the labor bureaucrats in charge of the United Transportation Union (UTU). The squabble?  The UTU calls the agreement a sell-out, and the BLET bureaucrats respond with a slew of name-calling and finger-pointing. Lost in the middle is not only the truth, but the perspective of the rank and file. There is no doubt that the outrageous drama orchestrated by the labor bureaucrats is being used as a diversion from the real issues, as both unions have been accustomed to doing for the last thirty years, since the creation of the UTU and the division of rail workers into two main unions.  The rank and file are always the losers when bureaucrats fight amongst themselves, and this fight is particularly nasty. In an unprecedented move, the UTU leadership sent a letter addressed to the BLET rank and file denouncing the contract.

Regardless of their intentions, the UTU is correct when they say that the tentative contract should be voted down. It is a deal with the devil, and the BLET bureaucrats are leading their members towards a very warm place, using all the skill of a slick politician to accomplish the task.  But good lies usually contain fragments of truth, and the BLET leaders ferociously cling to their sturdier arguments, augmenting them with fear, exaggeration, fear, hopelessness, and still more fear.

In an effort to convince the rank and file to accept the new contract, a 17 page letter was sent to the BLET membership by its General Chairmen, Mark Kenny, which can be summarized as follows: “I’m sorry that we had to accept this contract, but rejecting it would surely lead to a worse one, since the climate in Washington is sooo bad and, as you know, we are at the complete mercy of the politicians who give us our funding.”

The backlash that followed from the rank and file forced Kenny to release a Frequently Asked Questions document, which included the following question by a BLET member:

“Granted if we reject this contract, there is no guarantee we’ll get anything better, and conceivably we could get something much worse, but if things like this are to be imposed on us, don’t we weaken our case by voting for it and sending a message that we think it’s OK?” That is indeed the question!

Kenny’s answer was a confused history lesson that failed to address the essence of the question, even with of all the jumbled dates and statistics. It just so happens that if one studies Amtrak history, precisely the opposite conclusion should have been drawn.

Amtrak owes its publicly-funded existence to the fact that railroads, as a whole, are an unprofitable investment: too much cost is involved in basic  infrastructure and machinery for a “healthy” profit to be turned.  This applies with equal force to the airlines and the highway system, who receive much, much more in public subsidies than Amtrak, even though the airlines are privately owned and highway work privately contracted.  As government attention turned to the airlines and highways, railway owners abandoned investment, and the passenger rail system began a long process of deterioration that continues today.

Since private ownership could not profit from passenger rail service, and since a functional passenger railway system was obviously in the public interest, the federal government stepped in.  Amtrak was born as a contradiction: it was created as a for-profit corporation owned almost entirely by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  This peculiar set up was too much for the free-market worshipers to bear, and they cursed Amtrak as an experiment in communism, vowing to see it destroyed.

Amtrak StationPassenger rail service is a socially-worthwhile investment. A modern, efficient, well-funded, and affordable national rail service is needed today more than ever due to high airline costs and the price of gasoline. Railways are also less harmful to the environment. Instead of selling off the railroads piece-meal, we must fight to defend the semi-nationalized character of Amtrak.  The BLET and UTU must fight for a contract guaranteeing that Amtrak is fully-funded and is not further privatized. But not only that.  What would truly benefit all U.S. workers would be the total nationalization and modernization of the entire system, under the democratic control of railroad workers and the public in general. But this is not the perspective of the modern day “railroad barons”, the big business government, or the current union leadership.

Amtrak was created from a state-capitalist perspective: the government was to intervene and inject some cash for infrastructural improvement that the capitalists couldn’t “afford”, in order to keep commuters flowing to and from their jobs. The plan was to sell Amtrak to private investors as quickly as possible, who would then be able to profit from it.  The original goal was two years. That was in 1971. The feat proved harder to pull off than expected. There were complications.  Investors  understood that without the same tremendous subsidies that the airlines receive, the venture would be unprofitable, so they shied away.  The answer, as elaborated by the Heritage Foundation think tank was simple: there are sections of Amtrak that are highly used and already turn a profit; these should be sold individually to investors.  But the Heritage Foundation spied another obstacle to privatization – the union.  How is a solid profit to be made while Amtrak’s employees earn a living wage?  This was a problem that needed solving.

It is in this context that the current contract must be viewed.  The agreement is a bold attack on workers and aims for the eventual destruction of the union. That the union leadership dismisses as irrelevant the language in the contract that allows for the sub-contracting out of work currently performed by union members is yet another example of the “collaboration with the bosses” perspective that has driven many members to feel helpless in the face of these attacks.

Kenny claims, correctly, that under the new contract, “Amtrak cannot engage in any contracting-out that they have not already had the right to do for the past 25 years.”  But he is wrong when he says that nothing has changed.  The new contract explains in detail how the contracting-out will be implemented, including specifics about severance packages and lump-sum payments.  This is a gigantic leap from the abstract wording of previous contracts about the potential for contracting-out work; it is a detailed plan to destroy workers’ wages and benefits and with them, the union itself.

If one were curious about what this plan would look like if implemented, a glance at the ongoing onslaught against the United Auto Workers would be instructive.  Like Amtrak workers, UAW members had fought and won wages and benefits “too high” for the profit-reapers to handle, and an all-out assault on their wages was the result.  The results have been devastating.  This should serve as a warning to all Amtrak workers whose livelihoods are now at stake, and whose leaders yawn and dismiss the looming threat in the same manner as the UAW bureaucrats did before them.

Although the contracting-out of work is the most ominous feature of the contract, there are many other concessions being demanded that weaken the position of the union: no retroactive back pay will be given; there will be no cost of living increases from now on; medical insurance costs will skyrocket. Perhaps even worse is the effect the contract will have on the workers’ morale, many of whom already increasingly distrustful of their union and the intentions of its leaders.  The unfortunate conclusion many workers are drawing is, “Why pay dues at all if we receive nothing in return…why even have a union?”

The union leadership does nothing to address this type of worker discontent, as shown by Kenny’s apologetic letter that outlined the “historic strategy” of the union and its dismal results, which relied principally on the pressuring of Democratic politicians, and the grudging acceptance of countless anti-union resolutions forced on Amtrak by both Democratic and Republican Congresses.  Kenny explains over and over that the current contract is, historically, the accumulation of past anti-union legislation on the one hand, and pathetically low Congressional funding on the other, all of which is true.  It is false, however, that Amtrak employees have absolutely no say or no power under such circumstances.

ROCULuckily there is hope.  And as is the case with every union, hope lies in the organization and action of the rank and file. A good place for workers to get involved is the organization Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU), whose goal is to unite railroad workers into one union, preventing union bureaucrats from pointing fingers at each other while approving sell-out contracts.  This rank and file led organization is already having an impact, as shown by Kenny’s angry denouncement of them as “fringe lunatics” in his recent letter to the BTLE membership.

But the main task confronting Amtrak workers and their unions is to unite in the immediate struggle to confront the railroad industry’s attacks. By jointly confronting the railroads at the bargaining table, the power of railroad workers’ unions could be put to its intended use: to collectively fight for better wages and conditions. One step toward forging this unity in practice might be the production of an inter-craft newsletter, emphasizing the need for a united response to these attacks. Members of BLET and the UTU could issue joint leaflets, focused around the unifying slogan “An Injury to One is an Injury to All!” Inter-craft unity is the way forward, while also reaching out to the Teamsters, other unions, and the working class as a whole.

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