US: Democrats lead bipartisan assault on rail workers’ right to strike

Railyard behind the Cincinnati Union Terminal (CC)

The Independent Socialist Group opposes the decision by President 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.

On November 28th, Biden addressed Congress in a press release, calling on the government to impose a contract on the tens of thousands of rail workers in the four unions that have voted no on the tentative agreement. All the railroad workers unions have agreed to respect the picket line if there is a strike. The capitalist class feared the impact of a strike on their profits. They acted within 72 hours through their two political parties including self-identified “progressives” in the Democratic Party like AOC. Congress has the power to force a contract on the railroad unions due to the anti-union Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA is designed to stop railroad and airline workers from exercising their union rights, including the right to strike for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Biden, Congress, and the corporate media are spreading the narrative that rail workers can’t be allowed to strike because it will affect the economy. Biden attempts to justify imposing a rejected and harmful contract on rail workers by claiming that a strike will hurt working people across the country. These arguments against a decent union contract and the union rights of rail workers come straight from the mouths of the CEOs and billionaires who control the railroad corporations. The railroad owners and the capitalist class will use any tactic to exploit and divide the working class. They pit us against each other to keep corporate profits soaring while rail workers and working-class people suffer from devastating inflation, increasingly precarious jobs, and falling living standards.

Rail corporations are the ones putting working people’s jobs and lives at risk. The rail corporations have systematically cut jobs, understaffed the industry, undercut safety, ignored maintenance, and risked reliable service for the sake of profits year after year. Biden, the Democrats, and the Republicans are not worried about the effects of a strike on working class families. They’re worried about the impact of a strike on corporate profits.

In the third quarter of this year alone (2022), the Class 1 Railroads made the following profits:

  • Burlington Northern – Santa Fe (BNSF): $1.9 billion
  • CSX Transportation: $1.2 billion
  • CN/Grand Trunk Corporation: $223 million
  • Kansas City Southern: $97 million
  • Norfolk Southern: $1.1 billion
  • Soo Line: $127 million
  • Union Pacific $2.1 billion

Despite massive corporate profits, the contract being imposed features less than a 5% pay increase per year over the course of the five-year contract. This follows three years of zero pay increases for the railway workers while the corporations stalled in negotiations. These wage increases fail to match, much less exceed, the rate of inflation (which this year alone reached 9%) or to keep up with the cost of living.

Other failures in the contract include:

  • No gains on time off or preventing unsafe amounts of hours worked. Forced overtime and extremely long hours are the norm. Railroad workers are on call 24/7, 365 days a year.
  • Allowing companies to cut jobs and destroy scheduling protections, making it even more likely for rail workers to be working exhausted.
  • Increased healthcare premiums that will nearly double from their current levels by 2025.
  • This contract will result in continued understaffing: Railroad corporations have slashed jobs in recent years, with over 30% of jobs cut.

The union bureaucracy delayed negotiations until a Democratic Party president gained power under the illusion that they would be better positioned to win a good contract. Unions contributed $37.7 million in 2021-2022 towards electoral races in the hopes that the Democrats would follow up their supposed “pro-labor” campaigns with real support once in power. Instead, Biden and the Democrats have proven yet again that they always stand for corporate profits. Working people and unions can’t rely on the two corporate parties or lobbying to help us.

We can improve our living conditions and defend our rights by organizing unions and mass movements that can act independently of the two corporate parties. Going on strike, the act of withholding our labor, is a fundamental freedom and one of the most powerful actions we can take as workers.

The capitalist class and their government make strikes illegal because they know strikes are effective. Strikes and other working-class actions won us our rights to form unions and organize for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Strikes remain vital to defending and expanding those rights and improving our living standards.

Railroad unions should meet together and strike together

The railroad unions should organize mass workplace actions across all of the different crafts to be prepared to all strike together. Rail workers, through their union locals in coordination with regional and national strike planning, should organize pickets powerful enough to shut down key rail sites. The importance of the strike needs to be motivated among all members to ensure no members cross the picket line. All the railroad unions should meet together regularly to organize the strike and appeal for solidarity from other unions and communities locally and nationally.

The union bureaucracy has shown that they are unlikely to call a strike. No strike is guaranteed victory, but if working people don’t draw a line in the sand, the capitalists will continue to erode our rights and living standards. We need to fight for more militant and democratic unions and elect leadership that will fight for our interests instead of campaigning for us to take concessionary contracts and support corporate political parties.

Rank-and-file union rail workers can organize a strike despite the reluctance of the union leadership. The incredible West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 was both illegal and a wildcat strike, but it won big pay raises not just for the striking teachers but all public sector workers in the state. That victory kicked off the Red for Ed wave of walkouts and strikes across the country. But it will take massive efforts to organize an effective strike.

The rest of the labor movement needs to offer solidarity and support for the rail unions to go on strike. Unions must refuse to cross the picket and should join the rail workers on the line. They can publicly state their solidarity and push back against the anti-union narrative in the corporate media. The labor movement could organize and turn out their memberships to mass pickets, rallies, and even solidarity strikes to pressure the corporations into a good contract. This attack on rail union rights is an attack on all union rights. A victory for rail unions and workers would likewise be a victory for all unions and workers.

This contract battle shows why unions must take up political struggle as well as job actions and strikes. The repressive Taft Hartley and Railway Labor Act, among other anti-union laws, demonstrate how the capitalist class use their political power to exploit working people and prevent us from organizing effectively. Rail unions and the labor movement as a whole need to take up the fight to overturn Taft-Hartley, the Rail Labor Act, the Janus decision, and all the other anti-union laws.

Biden and the Democratic Party once again demonstrated that their loyalties lie with the capitalist class. If unions and working people want to fight effectively, they need to break away from the Democratic Party. The labor movement needs to unite and pool its resources to help build a new political party for working people.

A workers’ party could fight for public ownership of key industries, like the railroads. The efficient movement of goods and services is impossible so long as transportation remains in the hands of the capitalist class, which is only interested in ever-increasing profits.

The Independent Socialist Group is part of the fight to transform the labor movement and help organize a workers’ party. Join us!

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December 2022