If 115,000 angry freight rail workers defy government pressure and go on strike, commerce in the United States will slow to a crawl.
These essential workers are furious about their deplorable and dangerous working conditions. Their anger and readiness to fight showed when in July, members of one industry union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, voted by over 99% to authorize a strike.
Strikers would have to confront both their greedy corporate bosses and the U.S. government. The last national railroad work stoppage was 31 years ago. The U.S. Congress jumped in and forced it to end within 24 hours. Today, workers will need determined support from the rest of labor — and from the public — to keep the same strike-breaking hammer from falling again.
Hell on the rails. Freight carriers have implemented, by edict, an operating model they call Precision Scheduling Railroading (PSR). The result? Unsafe trains and crew members with no life to call their own.
Leading freight companies have used PSR to cut staffing by 29% in the last six years and to reduce the workforce by 45,000. Railroad profits soared and allowed investors to pocket $183 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010. But, resulting understaffing has made insane, unpredictable work schedules and dangerous fatigue into enormous safety issues for train operators.
Workers suffer from mandatory overtime. They are often forced to work between 70 and 90 hours a week. They can be called to work at any hour, any day of the week, year-round, with an hour and a half to report in. Many have left the industry because they have no control over their lives.
Safety has been seriously jeopardized. These trains used to run with crews of at least three and up to five people. They already got rid of the worker on the caboose. The reason? They eliminated the caboose, which was used for breaks, and for lookout. Now, railroad companies typically run two-person crews, an engineer and a brakeman who ride in the cab. Owners want to go down to one-person crews, even when pulling two miles of freight cars. Just how dangerous this is was shown in the 2013 Quebec, Canada, rail disaster, when a lone engineer did not properly tie down a train carrying two million gallons of crude oil. The result was a wreck that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in the town of Lac-Mégantic.
This lack of staff is an under-reported major safety issue affecting the public and workers.
Solidarity builds. The railway workforce is divided into a dozen different craft unions. But for the first time in decades, they started out coordinating their bargaining with the employer representatives.
The ranks have also been coming together. In 2017 members from the different crafts formed a cross-union solidarity caucus called Railway Workers United (RWU). Their slogan is “Solidarity, Unity, and Democracy.”
In January of this year, RWU passed a resolution urging all the unions to unite to mobilize their membership and prepare for a strike.
These workers need to stick together. The Biden administration is using provisions of the 1926 National Railway Act (NRA) to stymie their right to strike. When mediation required by the NRA ended in impasse in June, a mandatory 30-day “cooling off” period was imposed. After that period, the NRA allows for a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to be established to resolve the dispute. Biden did appoint such a board, which issued its recommendations in mid-August.
The employer groups were happy to accept the recommendations, but griped that the wage gains were too high. The unions said the recommendations were an improvement over the employers’ previous offers, even though it did not address most members’ concerns. They probably knew that the deal would not cut the mustard with their membership — yet they have done nothing to prepare for a work stoppage.
Indeed, many rank-and-file workers were outraged when they saw the recommendations. The proposal failed to address their urgent demands for fairer policies regarding scheduling, sick leave and other time off, attendance, safe staffing minimums, and more. The board left those “minor” issues to the unions and companies to iron out through further bargaining, even though two years at the table have resolved nothing.
If the workers turn down the deal offered by Biden’s board, there could be a strike or employer-initiated lockout on Sept. 16. As of Sept. 12, four of the smaller unions are breaking ranks and asking their members to approve a tentative agreement based on the Presidential Emergency Board proposal.
Railway Workers United has urged those members to vote it down, declaring, “Current conditions provide an excellent opportunity for victory. Now is the best chance we have had in decades to win something, not to give in. Vote NO!”
A history of militancy. Several times rail workers have stopped the movement of goods nationwide — causing significant economic disruption. In 1946 President Truman threatened to use the military to roll the trains, forcing a settlement with the unions. Police, federal troops and the national Guard were used against strikes in 1922, 1894, and the Great Upheaval of 1877.
The Upheaval was the first national strike in the United States. It started on July 14, with idled trains in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and then spread like wildfire. By the end of the month, a million workers in many industries across 14 states, from New York City to San Francisco, struck in sympathy. In Missouri an organized working class took over their city for 24 hours in what became known as the St. Louis Commune.
History shows that today’s rail workers, with enough support from an increasingly rebellious working class, can stand their ground and stop the trains. No matter what Congress has to say about it.
Send comments and questions to the author at FSnews@socialism.com.