Ruling Class Trembles at Prospect of Rail Strike across the US

Editor’s note: At the eleventh hour, after 20 hours of talks lasting late into the night, President Biden and numerous officials in his administration convinced union leaders to accept a tentative agreement, averting an imminent national railroad strike. However, the terms of the “Presidential Emergency Board” constitute an effective wage cut over the next five years when factoring in inflation, as detailed in the article below. The ranks of the dozen railroad unions representing 115,000 workers must now vote to ratify the deal. At least one of these unions, the International Association of Machinists, has already voted to reject the terms of the Presidential Emergency Board agreement, which their leaders had agreed to at an earlier stage of the negotiations.

During the duration of the voting on the tentative deal, the workers are again legally barred from taking strike action. Although the strike has been averted for the time being, however, none of the factors fueling the workers’ discontent have been resolved. There is immense potential power in the hands of the railroad workers, and the legal maneuvers of the federal bureaucracy will not be able to contain the growing class anger indefinitely. Sooner or later, these heavy battalions of the working class will be forced to take the road of open struggle. When they do eventually flex their muscles, the collective power of the working class will be on full display, showing how even a relative handful of workers united to stop production can bring the world’s largest economy to its knees.

 

Fed up with decades of intensifying exploitation, railway workers are prepared to bring the country’s freight transportation sector to a screeching halt, sending the capitalists and their government into a panic.

Some 60,000 railroad workers throughout the US are poised to strike on Friday, September 16, the first nationwide strike of its kind in 30 years. If the strike comes to pass, it could lead to dramatic turbulence in the already fragile economy and further exacerbate supply chain issues racked by the chaos of capitalist mismanagement. The strike could also have enormous political implications, given the direct involvement of the federal government in the simmering struggle and the likely intervention of Congress in the event of a strike.

Railroads account for 40% of all freight shipments in the US and essentially function as the backbone of the national economy. / Image: James St. John, Wikimedia Commons

After months of headline-making struggles by newly organizing layers of retail and warehouse workers at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, Trader Joes, and elsewhere, a strike by railroad workers would signify an important return to action by a long-dormant sector of the American working class, giving further impetus to the rising labor fightback.

The central importance of the railroads cannot be understated. They account for 40% of all freight shipments in the US and essentially function as the backbone of the national economy. As a result, railroad workers have long faced labyrinthine legal restrictions to prevent strikes through the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

Facing not only the stick, but also offered the carrot, railroad workers were among the most “pampered” layers of the American working class, enjoying higher wages and decent benefits throughout the post–WWII economic boom. However, with the predatory policies intended to increase profitability in recent decades, the industry has seen a dramatic scaling back of conditions for these workers, forcing their hand to defend the gains of the past.

Decades of intensifying exploitation

At the heart of the recent struggle is Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a system for the computerized scheduling and routing of containerized freight over the rail network. PSR was first proposed in the 1990s and is similar in character to the “just-in-time” production techniques adopted by industries beginning in the 1980s, as they sought to maximize profits through the reduction of overhead and increases in productivity.

The application of technology to increase efficiency and reduce necessary labor has the potential for general social benefits, if this were harnessed by a democratically planned economy under the control and management of the working class. However, on the basis of capitalism, such changes merely lead to the intensified exploitation of the workers through workforce reductions, resulting in dangerous speedups, declining working conditions, and a general assault on unions and the benefits won in the past through collective struggle.

As was seen throughout much of the US economy through the 80s and 90s, the capitalists sought to squeeze more profits out of the working class through every conceivable channel. In the railroads, this process was somewhat delayed given the highly monopolized nature of the industry, which shields it from direct competition. Added to this were the years the industry spent recovering from the mismanagement and the economic decline of the early 1970s. At this time, it was the intervention of the federal government to prevent the complete collapse of several major railroads into bankruptcy that temporarily prevented an implosion of the industry.

In 1973, the federal government stepped in to reorganize much of the country’s railroads with the establishment of Conrail. / Image: David Wilson, Wikimedia Commons

Through the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973, the federal government stepped in to reorganize much of the country’s railroads, particularly in the Northeast, with the establishment of Conrail. This infusion of government investment and oversight in railroad infrastructure allowed the industry to temporarily stabilize on a new basis. But this investment was never intended to build a robust, highly regulated, or state-owned railroad network—it was always intended to benefit the private sector in the long run.

And it did. With the delayed return of a certain degree of profitability, private investment in the railroads increased, and where the monopolistic nature of the industry had previously led to stagnation, finance capital played a role in disciplining economic activity as it had in other sectors. In the early 2010s, this increased financial investment led to pressure for improved profitability metrics and for the full adoption of PSR to meet those goals—come what may.

PSR: the bosses’ deadly speedup schemes

One significant danger associated with PSR is the reduced number of inspection checkpoints and the speedup imposed on workers for the inspection of cars and railroad infrastructure. Like the relentless pace at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, carmen are expected to keep their inspections to one minute per car, versus the three-minute minimum that many cite as necessary. Imagine trying to make your way around a 50-foot rail car and thoroughly inspect it in just one minute!

The strict scheduling of PSR demands this increased pace of inspections regardless of safety concerns. As the companies raked in a fortune, there were 1,621 accidents on the country’s railroads between January 2019 and June 2022. This flouting of safety by the companies affects not merely freight, but commuter lines that run on rails owned by them. Last year in Missouri, an Amtrak train crashed into a dump truck at a crossing that lacked any signals, killing four and injuring over 150. The train was traveling on rails owned and maintained by Warren Buffet’s BNSF, the largest freight railroad company in the US.

The increased derailments that have resulted from PSR threaten not only railroad workers and commuters, but the general public as well. Just last week, a train derailment in northern Iowa dumped asphalt into a nearby creek, requiring hazmat teams to lead the clean-up. In mid-August, a train derailment in Pennsylvania came dangerously close to striking a home. These are just the latest in a long list of dangerous and deadly accidents that have plagued the industry for years and reflect the railroad companies’ declining concern for safety.

Freight trains frequently carry tens of thousands of tons of hazardous materials, making them a particularly vulnerable element in the country’s infrastructure. In late 2020, an oil car train derailed and caught fire in Washington state. The cause of the derailment has been determined to be deliberate sabotage. One may wonder if this disaster could have been prevented if the train had had a crew of more than two railroad workers or if proper staff was available to more frequently inspect the rails.

As rail companies raked in a fortune, there were 1,621 accidents on US railroads between January 2019 and June 2022. / Image: National Transportation Safety Board

Not content with this already dangerous scenario, railroad companies have in recent years sought to reduce the number of operators on a train to just one—all but guaranteeing further headline-making disasters across the country.

Working harder and longer to make record profits for the bosses

The most significant impact of PSR has been a dramatic reduction in the railroad workforce. This trend towards decimation is not entirely new, but it has rapidly accelerated in recent years. The period from 1980 to 2019 saw a decline of railroad employees from 500,000 to just 135,000. Over just six years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, 45,000 railroad employees were laid off by the Class I railroads—the major railroads that account for the vast majority of freight shipments—an astonishing 30% of their workforce.

Among employees in the train and engine category—among the most skilled and difficult to replace—33% were laid off between 2015 and 2021, leaving many engineers to take up responsibilities that had previously been handled by brakemen and conductors. All this before the pandemic, during which the railroads’ short-sighted management further exacerbated the issue by laying off an additional 12,000 employees, leaving an enormous gap in the workforce that could not easily be filled as demand rebounded.

Enjoying record profits—$8.8 billion in 2021, an increase of nearly 14%—BNSF has attempted to plug the gap between demand and workforce by implementing an inhuman attendance policy known as “hi-viz.” The policy requires many railroad employees to be on call 24/7, forced to drop whatever they are doing so as to report for work within an hour, leaving many with only one day off per month. It also utilizes a point system in which employees have a finite number of points (30) and are docked more points depending on when their time off falls—whether at peaks or ebbs of operation.

The result is that many railroad employees are forced to put off important doctors’ appointments, are unable to maintain regular sleep rhythms, lack the freedom to spend time with friends and family, and are compelled to go to work sick—in the middle of a pandemic! Exhaustion and burnout are rampant among railroad workers throughout the industry, and may have been behind the recent railroad accident in Southern California, when two workers were killed after colliding with stopped rail cars on the sidelines.

“Cooling-off” periods and other legal maneuvers

In February, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD) voted to strike against the hi-viz attendance policy. However, given the provisions of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a federal judge ruled that the attendance policy was not an important enough dispute to warrant strike action—a decision that the labor leaders accepted with folded arms.

Joe Biden
As rail workers anger approached a boiling point, Biden stepped in and established the Presidential Emergency Board which mandated two 30-day “cooling-off” periods. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

The fact that the right to strike is left up to the whims of an unelected judge reflects just how far removed the labor movement of today is from the traditions that established it in the first place. Our movement was built by those who were willing to face the guns of the police and the hangman’s noose as they sought to establish unions that were at the time illegal—and violently resisted by the bosses. The RLA and the Trump-appointed judge remind us that the capitalist state is not an impartial arbiter of the struggle between classes and that the laws are ultimately written to favor the corporations.

By July, the anger of the rail workers was starting to reach a boiling point, and a strike was already imminent, signified by overwhelming strike authorization votes. The workers organized in the BLET, for example, voted to strike by a whopping 99.5%. At this point, Biden himself stepped in and established the Presidential Emergency Board which has since mandated two 30-day “cooling-off” periods, with the second of these expiring this Friday. The RLA–mandated “cooling-off” periods like the one currently imposed on the unions essentially allow the bosses and their government time to maneuver and potentially drive a wedge between the railroad workers who are organized into 13 different craft unions.

For the past two-and-a-half years, the 13 unions have been bargaining in coalition, a temporary circumvention of the limitations inherent in craft unionism. But on September 1, leaders of five of the unions (OAM, BRB, TCU, IBEW, and ADTA) broke ranks, opting to sign onto a tentative agreement that essentially accepts the Presidential Emergency Board’s (PEB) recommendations—pending approval by the membership. This has opened the floodgates and signaled the green light to leaders of all but the two largest unions, BLET and SMART-TD, to sign onto the agreement.

However, the PEB recommendations fall far short of the expectations of most railroad workers who have been pushed to their limit and correctly feel they are in an extremely favorable position to wrest more from the railroad tycoons. The central recommendation of the PEB includes a 24% compounded wage increase over five years, which falls short of the current rate of inflation, making this an effective wage cut. Other elements of the tentative agreement are mere window dressing and do not address staffing issues, PSR, or other scheduling concerns.

The recent breakdown of the coalition among the leaders has been met by Railroad Workers United (RWU) with a “Vote No!” campaign, calling on their union brothers and sisters to reject the tentative agreement that will be up for vote by their membership. Given the mood of exasperation among the railroad workers, the attempt of these union leaders to convince their members to vote for the tentative agreement could very well blow up in their faces as workers embrace the RWU’s slogan: “United we bargain, divided we beg!”

Limits of craft unionism

This situation reveals the limitations of craft unionism, where each job in an industry is organized into a different union, as compared to industrial unionism, in which workers of an entire industry are united in one organization. The division of the railroad industry into several craft unions is a legacy of the pre-CIO labor movement that was briefly overcome in railroading during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when railroad workers brought the US economy to a halt, saw mass rallies supporting the strikers, and in effect seized power in St. Louis for several days.

The division of the railroad industry into several craft unions was briefly overcome in railroading during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when railroad workers brought the US economy to a halt. / Image: Public Domain

Seeing the potential power that lay in the hands of the railroad workers, the bosses sought to weaken their fighting power. In the aftermath of 1877, years of systematic purging of the railroad workforce of all radical elements and the enforced segregation of the industry—excluding Black workers—allowed the conservative craft unionism to recrystallize.

But this process was not automatic or immediate, and railroad workers remained at the front ranks of the American labor movement for many years, leading heroic struggles such as the 1894 Pullman Strike. One of the biggest strikes was the 1922 Shopmen’s Strike, involving over 400,000 workers. Unfortunately, this strike failed as a result of the unwillingness of the four biggest railroad unions to support the struggle of the shopmen.

Seeing the potential danger of a national railroad strike, the Railway Labor Act was passed in response to the Shopmen’s Strike, ushering in a period in railroad labor struggle in which the capitalist state plays an overtly direct role. Thus, the extremely heavy hand of the state in railway labor struggles is a result of both the potential strength of the rail workers in the economy but also the weakness of the craft organization of the unions.

But the rising class struggle of recent years is now revealing craft unionism as an outmoded organizing method—as is subservience to the legal limits placed on the workers by the bosses’ bought-and-paid-for politicians. Victory in the present battle will require maximum unity across lines of craft and union, solidarity from the whole working class, and a willingness to stand firm in the face of the legal and institutional obstacles placed in their way by the bosses and their state.

The lie of “worker-friendly” Democrats

Although officials in the Biden administration are racing to pressure the labor leaders and prevent a strike, a strike is by no means ruled out. If it comes to pass, Congress will be obliged to act, either by implementing yet another cooling off period, or voting to declare the strike illegal outright. Such a development would pit a key layer of the American working class against an institution already beset by record low approval; just 17% of Americans approve of Congress, compared to the approval rating for unions, which currently stands at a 57-year high point of 71%.

If the Democratic-controlled Congress weighs in directly on the side of the bosses against the workers, it would make crystal clear which class these politicians loyally serve. This is something the Democrats hope to avoid with the midterms fast approaching.

Biden’s Labor Secretary Martin Walsh’s “both-sides” talk is a thinly veiled assault against the railroad workers. / Image: U.S. Department of the Interior

The lie that Biden is “union-friendly” is utterly exposed by the draconian response to the strike action of United Mine Workers (UMW) in Alabama. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that the union must pay $13.3 million as a penalty for their strike, to pay for the mining company’s increased security, damage to vehicles that rammed through the picket lines, and for revenue losses due to unmined coal. This scandalous ruling reveals the true attitude of the ruling class behind the “pro-labor” facade: they will pay lip service to your right to unionize—but it’s another story if the workers dare to exercise their collective power in the only way possible, by striking.

In the event of a rail strike, the bourgeois media will scapegoat them for the economic dislocation this would cause, in an attempt to drive a wedge between workers in different sectors of the economy. They will sling mud at the railroad workers, who have long-endured unacceptable conditions, especially during the worst economic impacts of the pandemic. Now they are being thanked with a kick in the teeth by the railroad bosses, who are moved by nothing but the almighty dollar bill. Attempts will be made to cast the railroad workers as irresponsible, lazy, and inconsiderate of the hardship faced by other workers throughout the country. Increased economic uncertainty will be attributed to the strikers—when all responsibility lies squarely with big business and the system they represent.

Biden’s Labor Secretary, Martin Walsh, has already stated that “A strike doesn’t help anybody … A strike doesn’t help the workers. A strike doesn’t help the general public. A strike certainly doesn’t help the supply chain.” Walsh’s “both sides” talk is a thinly veiled assault against the railroad workers who are in every conceivable way justified in their demands and who have every right to use their collective power to strike. After all, this is the only way to get the bosses to bend.

All-out class war is the solution!

Conditions are rotten-ripe for a labor fightback. In June, after years of declining work standards at an agency that has been criminally underfunded, engineers for NJTransit organized a sick-out on Juneteenth. Although it was hastily organized, the workers’ action forced NJTransit to entirely cancel rail service on the nation’s second-largest system of its kind. A strike of the freight railroad workers could galvanize workers throughout the railroad industry and beyond, encouraging more layers to place serious demands on the bosses.

Rather than increase investment to meet the rising demand on freight, the monopoly railroad companies—along with others in the logistics and energy sector—have simply profited from the high prices created by the demand squeeze, preferring to keep operating costs low for their Wall Street investors. The inflation driven by such monopoly profits have cut into the workers’ standard of living across the economy, pinching pockets across all layers of our class while enriching a small handful of capitalists.

This failure to invest in a sector of basic infrastructure critical to the national and world economy indicates a profound lack of confidence and foresight by the ruling class in the management of their own economic system. Above all, it shows beyond all doubt that the capitalist class is no longer fit to rule society. A strike of the railroad workers would reveal where the real power in society lies and in whose hands it belongs: the working class.

After decades of setbacks, labor is finally flexing its muscles. With multiple crises squeezing us from every side, the stakes are higher than ever. The entire labor movement should be mobilized to support our class brothers and sisters in the railroads through solidarity pickets, meetings, and above all, through the enthusiastic organization of new layers of the class into fighting unions. The situation also begs for a working-class political party with elected representatives to stand with our class in the halls of government, as well as a workers’ media to challenge the lies of big business.

The contradictions of the capitalist system cannot be eliminated through mere tinkering with the system. Even the establishment of a mass working-class party would be merely a step—albeit a major step—in the right direction. The only way out of the mess created by an irrational system predicated on maximizing profits is a socialist planned economy in which the workers collectively dictate the pace and priorities of work and make the decisions as to what we should do with the immense wealth our class produces.


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