In November 2022, a showdown loomed between labor and capital, with U.S. rail workers poised to strike over schedules, safety, and other basics. It was a fitting conclusion to a year of labor unrest.
But on Dec. 2, President Biden and Congress used an iron fist, invoking the Rail Labor Act. Workers were forced to stay on the job and swallow a contract the majority had voted to reject. This anti-labor move was praised by rail owners, Wall Street, and business with but mild protest from the AFL-CIO.
Biden justified his actions, warning “economic catastrophe” from a strike. There was truth in his words, because a U.S. rail workers’ rebellion and growing strike wave from South Korea to England could threaten the supply chain. But the purpose of a strike is to get bosses to negotiate.
Democrats and Republicans could have compelled owners to address understaffing, safety, etc. Instead, their bipartisan loyalty to the ruling class was on full display.
Emboldened rail bosses are now jockeying to grab more power. But the ranks of railroad workers are drawing lessons and are on the move.
Getting organized. A lightning rod in this unfolding battle is Railroad Workers United (RWU). It is a cross-union, rank-and-file caucus open to members of all rail crafts and unions in the railroad industry. Members called out how the owners’ greed jeopardizes workers’ lives and public safety. RWU Steering Committee member Paul Lindsay states: “The railroads should all be nationalized, take the profit out of them, and make them accountable to the public they are supposed to serve.”
During negotiations and strike prep, RWU members utilized media to educate about the industry’s barbaric conditions. Active support from other labor and community groups helped amplify their message. In December, protests of the forced agreement spread from coast to coast, involving diverse crowds from teachers to airline workers. The self-named “most pro-labor president in history” was denounced as a scab and strikebreaker.
Revitalizing union democracy. Still, the billionaire owners want more. Just before Christmas, two of the biggest companies asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to greenlight a merger that would fuel layoffs and service cuts. Billionaire Warren Buffet wants his Burlington Northern Santa Fe to merge with Canadian Pacific to carry tar sands oil from Canada into Mexico.
It’s this relentless war on workers that is stirring unions internationally, including those who can shut things down through their strategic roles in the global supply chain.
Shipyard workers in Korea and dockworkers in England have walked out recently over pay and working conditions. In the U.S., 22,000 union dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports are working without a contract. All this has the potential to propel labor toward greater unity and power worldwide.
But it won’t happen without class-conscious organizing by labor radicals, militants, and socialists like those who helped build organized labor almost 100 years ago. The good news is that it’s happening.
Within the railroad industry, RWU’s calls for democracy, cross-union unity, and nationalization of the rail industry is gaining traction. So is disgust with so-called labor-friendly politicians.
Another caucus within the railroad unions, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division – International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED-IBT) Rank and File United, has a mission to “invigorate, democratize and turn the BMWED-IBT into a member-run fighting union.” Caucus activist Deven Mantz states, “The rules are stacked against the workers,” and clarifies “nationalization needs to be under workers’ control.” Mantz’ outspoken views and activism have earned him retaliation from management, but he’s pushing back with help from his union local’s leadership.
Democracy movements within United Auto Workers and Teamsters have recently ousted calcified, corrupt union officials. Meanwhile, cross-union labor groups are growing in number, and at the same time developing programs to sharpen labor’s tools.
In Seattle, Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) declares that “Labor needs its own political party, independent of the corporate-controlled Democratic and Republican parties. OWLS knows labor-community solidarity, the kind it and countless other groups and unions built for railroad workers, is critical to success.”
Time for an offense. Drawing lessons from setbacks fertilizes the soil for battles going forward, and RWU is doing that. Conductor Gabe Christenson, RWU co-chair, said of Biden, “The ‘most labor-friendly president in history’ has proven that he and the Democratic Party are not the friends of labor they have touted themselves to be.”
RWU also continues to organize for the safety of workers and communities. They are spearheading a public campaign to push the Federal Railway Administration to stop the railroad magnates from reducing train crews to just one person.
The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main lobbying group, is pressing to further reduce crews. But RWU is pushing back and needs public support. (Visit railroadworkersunited.org for more information.)
The saga of railroad workers calls out for labor to demand repeal of the Railroad Labor and Taft-Hartley Acts. To prevail, unions and workers need to engage in mutual solidarity and independent political action, and win public support to creatively defy all those laws — and politicians — stacked against them. This is what workers did in the 1930s, and it’s past time to take it to the next level.
Send feedback to FSnews@socialism.com.