What Way Forward for Rail Workers?

by Nicholas Wurst (SMART-TD Local 1473, personal capacity)

On December 2, 2022 the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) published a statement opposing the decision by Congress and President Biden to impose a concessionary contract on rail workers who struggled for over 3 years for a new agreement. 

“The Independent Socialist Group opposes the decision by Biden and Congress to force an unfair, unsafe, and unlivable contract on railroad workers who have already voted to reject it! With the bipartisan vote of huge majorities, Congress has made it illegal for unions to take any job action in this contract fight. Biden and the corporate media are celebrating denying the fundamental rights of workers to fight for our jobs and conditions. Rail workers deserve the right to strike in order to win safe working conditions, full staffing, wage increases above inflation, and paid sick days to use on demand.”

Workers & Supporters Protest

Following that decision, ISG helped organize a protest when Biden visited Boston on December 2nd. About 200 people, including 20 ISG members and supporters, turned out to protest Biden as he met with British royals at UMass Boston. Supporters from unions and organizations including Boston DSA, Harvard Graduate Student Union, Clark University Graduate Workers Union, Teamsters Local 170, UFCW, AFSCME, and Boston Revolutionary Socialists rallied in solidarity.

As a railroad worker, RWU, and ISG member, I spoke about the need for rail unions to be transformed, the need to take immediate union action to build for a strike, the need for a workers’ party to fight against the Democrats, Republicans, and anti-union legislation, and the need to take the railroads under democratic public ownership.

“We are going to organize and fight within our unions to transform railway labor into a labor movement that represents all railroad workers and fights with all the strength available to it, and that builds links to the rest of the labor movement…to build a labor movement that’s taking on the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and Joe Biden!”

Several other ISG members, including a member of Teamsters 170, and other union members spoke in solidarity.

On December 6, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the two largest rail unions and those that represent train crews, announced a “solidarity rally” on December 13. 

Union leaders intended the rallies to draw attention to several industry issues and hearings by federal regulators. One hearing addresses major carriers’ use of embargoes. Railways abuse their right to refuse to service customers to hide how strategies like “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR) cause congestion, unreliability, and undercut their ability to provide service. Another addresses the proposed two-person train crew rule. Unions also wanted to emphasize unsafe conditions, the effects of PSR on the national economy, and the need for paid sick leave.

While the rallies were not formally in protest of the imposed contract, many workers and supporters showed anger about the contract and frustration with union leaders’ insufficient action. Many supporters turned out in protest against the government’s attack on the right to strike. Many railroaders commented on the contract, and rank-and-file union members pointed out that similar actions should have been organized weeks earlier to increase pressure on the federal government to not intervene. 

The union’s efforts to rally on December 13 were too little too late. Union leadership initially failed to inform members clearly where the rallies would be held or what they would be about. They relied on a handful of officers to organize local events to coincide with a primary rally in D.C. in just 6 days. There was no serious effort to mobilize the thousands of rank-and-file members or to use the rallies to disrupt carriers’ operations and profits. Official picket signs declared “this is not a strike”. No follow-up actions have been sanctioned or organized.

Nonetheless, it was a step forward for the rail unions to have called this action, and a victory for the rank-and-file members and supporters who organized actions to fill the gap left by the unions’ passivity. Members who organized and turned out for these rallies need to build for future actions and deepen links between various local rail unions and the broader labor movement.

Contract Imposed, Attacks Sharpen

The rail carriers’ main offensive now is an attack against the two-person freight train crew. In recent decades freight train crews have been decimated. The five-person crew standard for most of the 1900s has been reduced to a standard crew of two today. Some jobs in yards have been reduced to a single person operating a train through remote control. 

Most recently, Union Pacific (a major carrier) announced they are testing “ground-based conductors” to replace conductors working as crews. This would leave the engineer as the only person in the cab of a train that can be miles long. It is no mistake that companies waited until after the contract battle to unleash this attack, because this could have pushed workers to defy the back-to-work order.

The only legal barrier protecting the two-person train crew is a handful of state-level laws. Six years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) considered making a federal rule regarding crew size but scrapped it after the FRA was taken over by a former railroad CEO. It’s a condemnation of previous FRA administrations that no action has been taken to protect two-person crews, but not surprising given industry insiders often end up in charge of regulating bodies. 

The FRA has begun the process again, issuing a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”. However, the proposed rule which would ostensibly protect the two-person crew is full of exemptions and loopholes. 

No to Single Employee Crews!

Railroad Workers United, an interunion rank-and-file caucus, publicly called out a loophole built into the proposed rule:

“The Rule – if finalized in its current form – has the potential to allow almost any rail carrier to run most trains with LESS than the two-person crew minimum that the Rule would ostensibly mandate. In addition, the Rule – if finalized in its current form – would preempt all existing state laws on the books, which now require a two-person train crew minimum.”

Unions cannot count on federal regulators to side with workers. It’s been clearly demonstrated that government regulatory agencies are controlled by politicians of the corporate parties and will side with the companies.

“Business as Usual” Can’t Continue for Rail Unions

The rail unions remain largely craft-based, and with jobs and crafts eliminated, outsourced, and subcontracted over the decades, many dying unions have merged with others to survive declining membership. Openly hostile to each other in the past, and competing for their perceived “share of the industry”, rail unions only united for the most recent round of negotiations, and only in name. 

Joint negotiations broke down as unions one-by-one agreed to tentative agreements, dropped out of the negotiations, and signed “me too” clauses to ensure they received any further concessions the remaining unions won, with no regard to the weakened position their abandonment left those unions in. There was no real public campaigning, mobilizing the membership in shows of strength, or serious preparation for a strike. Instead, many assumed that any strike would be short, scabbing wouldn’t be a threat, and that any back-to-work order from the federal government would be obeyed. 

Instead of using the power of their membership, organized at the point of distribution of key goods, the unions played out all the steps of the pro-business RLA and relied on lobbying. They donated millions to the Democratic Party, suffered quietly through the pandemic while hoping for a Democratic administration, then rolled over and accepted the imposed contract when that Democratic administration sided with the bosses. Unions spent $37.7 million lobbying in 2021-2022 in the hopes that the Democrats would follow up their supposed “pro-labor” campaigns with real support once in power. Biden and the Democrats in Congress, including self-identified “progressives” like AOC, took a mere 72 hours to impose the contract, deny workers paid sick leave, and bar any possible strike.

Reclaiming Railroad Labor

It’s no wonder that the leadership of the third largest union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED), faced an organized challenge from the BMWED Rank and File United Caucus at the 2022 convention. The Rank and File United Caucus gathered thousands of votes for its program, including implementing direct election of officers. A leading member, Devin Mantz, is being targeted for discipline by BNSF (the largest railroad in the U.S., owned by billionaire Warren Buffett), who undoubtedly fears a militant, rank-and-file led union. A rank-and-file member of Machinists District 19 announced a campaign for the union presidency and put together a “Challenger Slate” of members running for other offices. 

Even more dramatically, the president of the BLET, the second-largest rail union, was ousted by a rank-and-file member named Eddie Hall. The election occurred just two weeks after the contract was imposed, and it is clear that the election results represent a condemnation by the membership of the business-as-usual approach of the established leadership.

That leadership showed, through lack of preparation, that their threat to strike was always an empty one. Real strike preparation would require training the membership through experience with informational picketing, rallies, and public demonstrations. Members’ meetings to discuss the need for a strike, how strikes work, what an effective picket line is, and how to interact with police, scabs, managers, and the public on the picket line would be crucial to lay the groundwork for a serious strike. 

Coordinating meetings between different craft-based locals in the area to make strike plans would help give strikers confidence in numbers and overcome divisions companies will exploit. Discussions with other non-rail unions to prepare solidarity actions and strike support would also be crucial. Public meetings could be used to educate the public and gather support that could be mobilized to reinforce the picket line and cut across the propaganda claiming “greedy” union members don’t care about the strike’s effect on other peoples’ jobs and lives. An effective, organized strike could bring battles to a quick conclusion, or dig in for a long fight if needed. 

Working Inside or Outside the System?

While the PATCO strike is often brought up as an example of the consequences of illegal strike action, there are countless more examples of times unions struck illegally because it was necessary, and won. Public sector strikes, like the successful West Virginia teachers’ strike, have been both illegal and powerful. Illegal strikes often culminate in fees and fines when they are too powerful to break with force. It’s worth taking some fines in order to defend our right to strike, to join a union, etc. It took illegal job action to win these rights, like countless railroad strikes throughout U.S. history including the largest strike wave ever in the U.S. from 1945-1946. 

What Now?

Discussions need to begin now among rail workers as yet another craft—conductors—is threatened, and as all rail workers are threatened by de-skilling, job cuts, subcontracting, and declining real pay. At some point, a line must be drawn if we are to have any hope for good jobs and lives in the industry. 

Rank-and-file workers need to continue to discuss the issues we face in the industry, and how best to agitate around these issues in the workplace, community, and media. We have to start holding regular joint meetings across all crafts in an area to discuss common issues, labor history, and organizing strategy. 

We have to build up our defenses against the ongoing attacks of the carriers happening outside of the contract cycle. We have to prepare a real campaign to defeat the carriers in the next contract battle as the “Section 6” notices that start the next round of bargaining are expected to be issued in 2025. We need dress rehearsals in the form of informational picketing and job actions around key issues—like following through on the strike threat from early 2022 around the institution of the brutal “hi-viz” attendance policy by BNSF. 

Our unions need new leadership willing and able to carry out these campaigns, and we have to unify our various reform efforts around a common program. A conference should be organized, open to all railroad reform organizations and candidates, to discuss common demands, share experience, and launch coordinated campaigns in every union.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), as currently the only group explicitly aiming to build a cross-craft organization, has a key role to play coming out of this contract battle. RWU is a good step towards rebuilding an industrial union that unites all rail workers in one, like the American Railway Union led by socialist Eugene Debs. RWU won a very high profile during the 2022 contract battle and gained a lot of interest because it partly filled the void left by the weak union leadership organizationally and politically. RWU correctly put forward the demand to nationalize the rail industry which resonated with layers of workers. It is key that RWU take that new interest and transform itself into an organization with a large, active membership which is consolidated into local chapters, and into a forum where various reform efforts can be strategized and coordinated.

Railroad workers also need to link up with the rest of the labor movement and push to build a labor or workers’ party, based on a broad working-class program, internal democracy, dues-paying membership, and accountability of officials and candidates (including taking only the average wage of a worker). Such a party could fight to repeal the RLA and other anti-union legislation and put workers’ representatives in a position to fight against the pro-corporate agenda of federal regulatory bodies like the FRA and Surface Transportation Board and their allies, the two corporate parties.