by C.A. Matthews
If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains,
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still. —Joe Hill
Imagine, if you will, that you’re as sick as a dog (could it be COVID-19?) but you’re not allowed to call in sick to your extremely demanding and physical job. If you do call in sick, you will not be paid—and that’s bread out of your children’s mouths—and you will also receive a black mark next to your name. But let’s say that you decide it’s worth staying home for a day to recuperate or go to your doctor for medicine. You get away with just a warning this time, but a month later it’s one of your parents—they’re at death’s door. Your family insists you come home before your parent takes their last breath and stay with them at least a week for the funeral. What do you do?
If you go to your parent’s death bed and stay for the funeral, you’ll receive another black mark and find yourself immediately fired from your job. There’s no discussion about it. Those are the rules. Your empty position might not even be filled, as the company decides that less workers working even more overtime hours can take up the slack. Who really needs adequate rest and medical attention to do a good job anyway?
When your union decides that it’s had enough of these inhumane work conditions and asks for fifteen sick days per year, the well-paid CEOs of yours and all the other related companies flat out say no to the request. Your union talks seriously about striking. However, before you can do so, the federal government steps in and says, “It’s illegal for you to strike, and if you strike you all will be fired.”
This nightmare scenario isn’t something out of an Orwellian novel. This is the life of the American railroad worker in the year 2022. Working under conditions like this, what could possibly go wrong?
The greater threat, railroad unions argue, is workers on the job for days a time without sufficient time off to see a doctor or recover from illness as the nation continues to face COVID-19 and other viruses. In June, a locomotive engineer died of a heart attack on the job after missing a doctor’s appointment to avoid being penalized by BNSF, a major rail carrier company. —From Railroad Workers Slam Biden for Siding with Bosses to Avoid Strike
But, but, but... Just think about all those “poor” CEOs! How can they afford to pay railroad workers what they’re worth, hire a sufficient number of them to work safely, and provide them with paid sick days? Aren’t they suffering in this wretched economy, too?
While opposing a plan that would have required them to spend $321 million to give workers seven paid sick days, the main railroad companies raked in more than $7 billion in profits and paid out over $1.8 billion in dividends, in a year where they and their lobbying groups have spent more than $13 million lobbying Congress — after railroad CEOs pocketed more than $200 million in compensation.
The railroad industry delivered more than $3.3 million in campaign contributions to Congress in the 2021–2022 cycle, according to data collected by OpenSecrets.
The railroad workers — constrained by an outdated labor law, the Railway Labor Act, which severely limits their right to strike — have been outgunned this time by powerful corporate titans bearing little difference from the railroads’ robber baron founders. From Railroad Bosses Gave Millions to Congress to Defeat Their WorkersThat’s the story that made some of the mainstream media outlet headlines this past week. Railroad workers are threatening to strike—illegally—because their reasonable contract demands aren’t being met. President Biden, who campaigned with the promise that he would become “the most pro-union president,” has signed a bill that passed both houses of Congress that forbids the railroaders from striking and forces them to accept a contract they don’t want since it doesn’t even address their paid sick day demands.
Even faux progressives/DSA members like Rep. Alexandria “Tax The Rich While Attending A Met Gala In An Expensive Evening Gown” Ocasio-Cortez voted for the anti-strike bill. How the DSA (The Democratic Socialists of America) can even claim to be a pro-union, pro-worker, pro-socialist, pro-democracy organization is a mystery to me and many others. Supporting unions, collective bargaining, and the right of workers to vote on whether or not to strike are among their founding principles. What are they if they ignore their own principles?
Formerly somewhat-socialist Senator Bernie Sanders tried to passed another smaller bill that would give the railroad workers seven of the fifteen paid sick days they asked for, but it failed spectacularly as well. It was bound to fail the way the Senate has been voting lately, and the Railroad Workers United (a coalition of railroad worker unions) saw through this ploy. The bit of sugar for workers that Bernie dangled in front of his fellow senators really wasn’t going to make much of a difference anyway, but at least we know his “thoughts and prayers” are with the thoroughly screwed-over railroad workers, don’t we?
The vote is a thoroughly unsatisfying result for rail workers, who had pushed for up to 15 days of paid sick leave, better health benefits overall, and other attendance- and schedule-related demands. Their work conditions have already been in limbo for three years throughout contract negotiations.
The vote is also a sign of the willingness of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to trample on workers’ rights, and represents a stunning betrayal from Biden, who had pledged to be the “most pro-union president in American history” on the campaign trail.
Unions and labor advocates have expressed frustration over the resolution this week, which they say is a show of both major political parties’ alliances with capital and the rail industry. Even if the sick leave amendment had passed, the amendment didn’t go as far as some union members had pushed for — and workers say that the inclusion of paid sick leave would still not fully address the abusive conditions they face or undo the fact that many Democrats voted to override the will of the unions. —From Senate Blocks Sick Leave Plan Imposes Rail Contract In Anti-Union Move
There’s not much more I can say now other than I sincerely hope the railroad workers start a wildcat strike come their deadline of December 9. They have the numbers (approximately 115,000 RWU members), and they have the power. A strike by the railroaders would shut down the economy and send a definite message to Congress, the president, and the world that American workers aren’t slaves or pack animals. They have human rights that cannot be trampled on by Big Business and the federal government without consequences.
As award-winning journalist Chris Hedges puts it:
The rich, throughout history, have subjugated and re-subjugated the populations they control. And the public, throughout history, has awakened to the class war waged by the oligarchs and plutocrats and revolted. Let us hope that defying Congress, freight railroad workers carry out a strike. A strike will at least expose the fangs of the ruling class, the courts, law enforcement and the National Guard, much as they did during labor unrest in the 20th century, and broadcast a very public message about whose interests they serve. Besides, a strike might work. Nothing else will. —Know Thine Enemy
The RWU sums up what’s been happening and what steps all workers should take next very well:
While Railroad Workers United (RWU) finds it despicable – but not surprising – that both political parties opted to side with Big Business over working people yesterday and vote against the interests of railroad workers – not once, but twice, within hours. We suffered a one-two punch at the hands of, first the Democratic Party; the second served up by the Republicans.
First, responding to the wishes of President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House voted to legislate a contract that the majority of U.S. freight rail workers had previously voted to reject. The Senate would quickly follow suit. In effect, their actions simply overrode our voices and desires. Rail workers – like all workers – should have the right to bargain collectively and to freely engage in strike activity if and when the members see fit and when they democratically elect to do so.
Within hours of the Senate vote sealing our fate on Thursday afternoon, we would suffer a second defeat, this time at the hands of the other party of Big Business, the Republican Party. That bill – which would have mandated that all railroad workers receive seven days of paid sick leave – would receive just a handful of votes from Republicans in the House and, crucially, in the Senate, where it went down to defeat.
“This one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable,” according to RWU General Secretary Jason Doering. “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.”
Railroad Workers United understands that this fight for justice will continue in the coming months and years. “The rail carriers are too powerful and are a scourge to the national economy,” according to 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 believes that railroad workers need to explore options other than the existing two political parties since neither appears to have our backs. RWU also believes that railroad workers need to consider doing away with the archaic and divided craft union system that hampers our unity and solidarity, and initiate the process of building a single and powerful railroad workers union that can win in future rounds of contract bargaining. According to RWU Organizer Ron Kaminkow, “We have been played for well over a century by politicians and union officials alike. The fiasco of recent months will show that 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.” --From Democrats Then Republicans Smite Rail Labor
This is the solution to all our problems, for all American workers. Nationalize the railroads and other industries that are vital to our very lives and well-being, such as health care, education, and housing. Dump the duopoly of the corporate-owned-and-operated Republican and Democratic parties that easily vote away the rights of workers but can’t seem to even vote on a bill to provide them with adequate sick days or universal health care.
This is what the world needs now—healthy, well-cared-for Americans who enjoy the human rights our government agreed to in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We certainly don’t need to be wasting hundreds of billions of tax-payers’ dollars on proxy wars and risking nuclear war when we can’t even give a hardworking railroad worker a sick day off with pay.
Railroad Workers United, a coalition of 14 railroad labor unions, also published an open letter to Congress and the President urging them to refrain from efforts to subvert the railroad workers’ rights. They went on to demand that the railroads be brought under public ownership to serve the public interest and that Congress pass laws for paid family and sick leave for all workers, fully fund the National Labor Relations Board and pass the PRO Act.
Dear President Biden, Democratic Leaders Pelosi and Schumer, Republican Leaders McConnell and McCarthy, and all members of the United States Congress:
We are sending you this letter to urge you to rescind and reject President Biden’s proposal for Congress to force rail carriers and rail workers to accept a tentative contract agreement that has been rejected by four out of the twelve railroad unions. These four unions represent the majority of workers on the nation’s freight railroads, and by pushing through a tentative agreement that a majority of rank-and-file union members have declared completely unsatisfactory, President Biden and Congress would be overriding the democratically expressed will of railroad workers.
While the tentative agreement provides significant wage increases, workers on the railroads have stated clearly and repeatedly that their fight is not just about money. Railroad workers are fighting for the right to live—and have a life—outside of work.
The freight rail industry is structured as a non-competitive oligopoly that is dominated by seven rail carriers and operates at the behest of Wall Street, prioritizing the maximization of profit for rail executives and shareholders, even if it comes at the expense of endangering the broader public and irreparably damaging the supply chain. In the past few decades, the rail industry has adopted the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) model, which has benefited investors at the cost of railroad workers and the public at large. As noted in the Presidential Emergency Board Report #250, because of the PSR model, railroad companies have reduced the workforce by about 30 percent in 6 years, have instituted attendance models which pressure workers to work through exhaustion, reduced safety and checking procedures, all in order to reduce costs and increase profits.
In fact, the railroad industry is the most profitable industry in the country. However, the billions of dollars of profit comes at the cost of railroaders being on call virtually 24/7, unable to access routine health care, missing the deaths of their loved ones and the birth of their children, and dying by the hundreds in work accidents. It has also come at the cost of the broader public, as PSR has created a situation where there are not enough working railroaders to service the demand which the rail industry faces, making it a direct cause for the current supply-chain crisis and a key contributor to inflation.
The central demand of railroad workers has been increased days of sick leave which has been wholly absent from the tentative agreement. It is for this that workers are willing to go on strike. Railroad workers have been without a contract for over 3 years, dealing with these issues without resolution and without support from the Congress and Presidency. Urgent action has only taken place after the urging of big business not of workers.
After a coalition of over 400 business groups sent a letter on Monday to Congress to call for immediate action to prevent a railroad strike, President Biden’s administration responded swiftly, urging members of Congress to override the will of the railroad workers, enshrine the tentative agreement into law, and force railroad workers back to work.
Senator Sanders has tweeted that he will “block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America”. We applaud this effort but we also note that rail workers are fighting for 15 days of sick leave and that the United States is the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid sick leave. Under the threat of a railroad strike, which will cripple the US economy if executed, the opportunity has opened up for all working people in the country to stand in solidarity with railroad workers and demand what we deserve, the right to live in dignity.
While we are stuck at an impasse in the railroads, almost 50 thousand graduate student workers in the UC system are striking for better pay and conditions, with a key demand being a Cost of Living Adjustment(COLA). They are joined by the thousands of Starbucks and Amazon workers who have unionized their workplace and are currently bargaining for a contract, by the Warrior Met Coal United Mine Workers who have been on strike for 19 months, by the thousands of tenants who have formed tenant unions and are fighting for better housing, by nurses and teachers and various segments of all working people in the country who are all fighting the same struggle, in different forms, for a better world.
As members of Congress debate amendments to the Tentative Agreement in order to avert a railroad strike, we urge Congress and the President to also take hold of this historic opportunity to empower all working people. As such we urge Congress to adopt the following demands:
Public Ownership of the Railroads: To deal with the current supply chain crisis, Congress must take control of rail infrastructure as is done the world over and operate it under the public interest.
Universal Paid Family and Sick Leave: The United States is the only developed country that does not guarantee paid leave. Our members of Congress have the privilege of enjoying paid family and sick leave which must be expanded to include all working people.
Pass the PRO Act and Fund the NLRB: Congress must step up and ensure that the right to organize for working people is protected through the passage of the PRO Act and also ensure that the NLRB is properly funded to accommodate the sharp increase in unionization.
Railroad Workers United
You can sign the letter at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScJBMZx6EN5Lc72SUnGbP9GlMFsN0nvczA6RTjpza-dCoSfJw/viewform
Press Release from Railroad Workers United https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Press-Release--The-Democrat-Republican-One-Two-Punch-to-Rail-Labor.html
Democrats Then Republicans Smite Rail Labor https://popularresistance.org/democrats-then-republicans-smite-rail-labor/
Resolution in Favor of Public Ownership of the Railroad Industry from the RWU https://static1.squarespace.com/static/505b96a8c4aa40a37a143c49/t/634727bb9a8a3523da77a389/1665607613004/RWU+Resolution+in+Support+of+Public+Ownership+of+the+Rail+Industry+-+FINAL+10-12-22.pdf
\US Railroad Workers "Under The Thumb" https://popularresistance.org/us-railroad-workers-under-the-thumb/
Railroad Bosses Gave Millions to Congress to Defeat Their Workers.https://www.rsn.org/001/railroad-bosses-gave-millions-to-congress-to-defeat-their-workers.html
Railroad Workers Protest Joe Biden's Interference In Fight For Their Rights https://popularresistance.org/railroad-workers-protest-joe-bidens-interference-in-fight-for-their-rights/
Biden Accused of Selling Out Rail Workers by Urging Congress to Prevent Strike https://scheerpost.com/2022/11/29/biden-accused-of-selling-out-rail-workers-by-urging-congress-to-prevent-strike/
Railroad Workers Slam Biden for Siding with Bosses to Avoid Strike https://truthout.org/articles/railroad-workers-slam-biden-for-siding-with-bosses-to-avoid-strike/
US Rail Workers Are Poised to Begin a National Strike Next Week https://popularresistance.org/u-s-rail-workers-are-poised-to-begin-a-national-strike-next-week/
Every Union Contract Right Now Should Be the Best Ever https://popularresistance.org/every-union-contract-right-now-should-be-the-best-ever/
Putting Profits Over People. Senate Rejects Paid Sick Leave For Rail Workers https://scheerpost.com/2022/12/02/putting-profits-over-people-senate-rejects-paid-sick-leave-for-rail-workers/
Senate Blocks Sick Leave Plan, Imposes Rail Contract in Plainly Anti-Union Move https://truthout.org/articles/senate-blocks-sick-leave-plan-imposes-rail-contract-in-plainly-anti-union-move/
Biden Urged to Sign Executive Order Guaranteeing Rail Workers Paid Sick Leave https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/12/01/biden-urged-sign-executive-order-guaranteeing-rail-workers-paid-sick-leave
Airline Workers Join Railroaders in Fight Against Abusive Work Conditions https://popularresistance.org/us-airline-workers-join-railroaders-in-fight-against-abusive-work-conditions/
Chris Hedges: Know Thine Enemy https://chrishedges.substack.com/p/know-thine-enemy
The Squad: A Long History of Failures/Bernie Sanders' Role in Passing Anti-Strike Law (video) https://youtu.be/BtrnHO2gXr8
Seen on Twitter:
This is a legacy defining moment for Joe Biden. He is going down as one of the biggest disappointments in labor history. https://t.co/FoPlshWbIL— Railroad Workers United ✊ (@railroadworkers) November 29, 2022
AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ro Khanna, Jamaal Bowman, & Cori Bush ALL voted to impose the contract that rail workers rejected. If the 7-sick-day resolution fails in the Senate, they'll have done exactly what Biden did – betrayed workers in favor of the bosses. https://t.co/tLtnpg5bfH— Socialist Alternative (@SocialistAlt) November 30, 2022
BREAKING: The Senate just voted in favor a forced contract between freight railroads and unions that provides for ZERO paid sick days for workers. The agreement was meant to avert a strike on 12/9, but with their key provision axed, workers may take matters into their own hands. pic.twitter.com/xwCp9aUx8n— BreakThrough News (@BTnewsroom) December 1, 2022
We should all walk out...and have a wildcat General Strike. It would shake things up. Let the oligarchs know who's in charge--the 99% #GeneralStrikeON— READ TheRevolutionContinues.substack.com (@cynthianna3) December 2, 2022
Hey, folks, @maximillian_alv here, thought you should see these photos a railroad worker sent me today: ONE day after Congress preemptively broke railroaders' strike & did nothing to stop rail carriers' destructive business practices, 2 Norfolk Southern trains derailed in PA & WV pic.twitter.com/LRjo5As4Kg— The Real News (@TheRealNews) December 3, 2022