I have been a member of BMWED-IBT, the national union representing rail workers, for over a decade. I come from a union family that stretches back three generations. My wife and I are raising our kids in a union family. I earn my paycheck as a trackman. My union brothers and sisters and I perform the same duties as the trackmen anywhere: We pull old ties and install new ones; we cut and replace defective rail; we inspect and repair switches and frog crossings; we build new tracks where none previously existed. The railroad where I work operates in the Northeast and it moves people from one place to the next. It’s not one of the class-1 freight railroads responsible for shipping material like grain or coal or fertilizer, so the recent contract conflict between those freight carriers and the unionized workforce doesn’t directly affect me, my fellow trackmen, the signalmen, engineers, conductors, dispatchers, mechanics, or any of the workers who keep the place open. Not yet, anyway. We know it’s coming for us. And sooner rather than later.
I don’t hold an elected position within my union, so don’t read this as an official dispatch on behalf of the organization. All I can tell you is what I’ve seen up close and what I think it means for those of us in organized labor—hell, for any of us who bust our asses for a check while a few suits with expensive haircuts watch their mountain of gold grow ever higher.
A few days have passed since Congress and President Joe Biden foreclosed the possibility of a legal strike by railroad workers. The blood has had a chance to cool from a boil to a simmer. The facts of the situation can be viewed with some measure of detachment, and, despite what you may have read in news sources or seen on TV, this was never just a conflict over the number of paid sick days. About 115,000 workers represented by 13 separate craft unions, who keep 40 percent of the nation’s freight moving, got screwed. The coalition of interests that did the screwing includes: the executive boards of the seven class-1 carriers, most of Congress, and the president.
Democratic action is not limited to voting in municipal, state, and federal elections every few years. Democracy also occurs in workplaces, as when a majority of workers come together and vote to engage in a strike after three years of working without a ratified contract with no raises, 10 years of cuts to the workforce through firings or layoffs or furloughs or attrition, and a brutal scheduling regime that forces some workers to choose between health, familial obligations, and unemployment.
When the rail carriers, Congress, and the president swiftly came together to force railroad workers to eat another shitty contract, they subverted democracy to do so. All the excuse-making and promises to make good at some undetermined point in the future can’t change that fact. And it won’t change the fact that the carriers will continue to roll in profits, like hogs in mud; that the politicians will continue to speak out of both sides of their mouths from the safety of their offices; or that workers, who keep the freight moving, will go on doing their jobs while having their lives outside of work ground into dust.
Wake up with a high fever and puking your guts out? Take the day off, and you can be fired. Your wife goes into early labor? Take the day off, and you can be fired. An elderly parent slips on some ice and needs help around the house? Take the day off, and you can be fired. When the operating directive is to maintain a functioning system with the fewest workers possible, then unscheduled time away from work, paid or not, is treated as a direct attack on company profits.
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While it’s true that the railroad workers would have welcomed those paid sick days and put them to good use, it’s also true that the lack of paid sick time was a symbol of a deeper, more malignant rot at the core of the relationship between management and labor. Seven days available to keep from infecting fellow workers during a personal illness or to stay home and care for a sick kid would be great, but it wouldn’t be enough to alter the overall regime of exploitation. Paid time off won’t put enough qualified bodies on the ground, at the cost of some profit, to bring the work week back to some semblance of normalcy, attract new applicants to the industry, and stem the outflow of experienced workers who can’t justify another week, month, or year of missing out on life.
This isn’t a new development. You can blame E. Hunter Harrison for inventing Precision-Scheduled Railroading, which to this day serves as the carrier’s primary excuse for the reductions to the workforce and the punishing schedules for those who remain. You can also blame the pandemic for disrupting an already fragile supply chain, CEOs for valuing shareholder profits over people, or union leadership for a cowed posture before the carriers and a failed negotiating strategy. None of it will change what the historical record teaches us about what just happened.
I’m not some big-shot labor historian or anything, but I’ve read enough to know railroad strikes have scared the shit out of the ruling elite since the beginnings of industrial capitalism. The primary weapons against the democratic will of the workers has been the legal and military power of the federal government. The Great Upheaval of 1877 began as a strike by railroad workers in West Virginia and quickly spread to Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Illinois, and Missouri. National Guardsmen gunned down scores of strikers while strikers burned down rolling-stock and rail-yard buildings. The movement of freight and passengers ground to a halt, and railroad barons lost a lot of money.
It wasn’t until President Rutherford B. Hayes heeded the demands of capital and deployed federal troops that the strike was ended. Less than 20 years later, federal troops were once again used to violently break the Pullman Strike in Washington State, and the federal courts intervened to jail Eugene Debs, the leader of the fledgling American Railroad Union. It was a federal injunction by the Warren G. Harding administration, along with National Guard troops aligned with company-employed militia in several states, that ended the nationwide railroad strike of 1922, and during the cross-industry, 5 million-worker-strong postwar strike wave of 1946, President Harry Truman was so desperate to compel striking railroad workers back on the job that he asked the US Congress for the power to draft those railroad workers into the military and use his authority as commander in chief to order them back to work. Congress eventually denied Truman this request, but by then the strike was over.
What just happened lacked the shock of violent clashes, disrupted service, and lost revenue that marked the conflict between railroad workers and carriers in the past. But the result was no different. Instead of rifles in the hands of National Guardsmen, the weapons this time were the Railroad Labor Act and the president’s request for an act of Congress. In 2022, as in 1877 and 1922, the federal government intervened in a disagreement between railroad workers and railroad bosses, and did so on behalf of the bosses who will continue to operate as they have. They know that no matter how incompetent or outright evil their actions, the federal government will always save them from suffering any consequences. The freight will move from one point to the next, and the profits will keep piling up.
As always, those of us who consider ourselves a part of the labor movement stewed in the aftermath and asked ourselves and each other: “Now what?” The decision faced by the brothers and sisters who have been forced to accept the contract imposed by the carriers, Congress, and Biden, is more material and immediate in nature: Do they stay and keep suffering under the same inhumane conditions, or do they quit, start over, earn a paycheck in another trade? I don’t envy them one bit; it’s a motherfucker of a choice, with no guarantee their life on the other side will be any better than the one they left behind. And what does that mean for the rest of us, and what are we to do? Those questions have haunted labor in the wake of Taft-Hartley, the Volcker shock, the air-traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, NAFTA, the crash of ’08, and the labor fights in Wisconsin in 2010.
There is only one good answer: We can whisper or roar about punishing disloyal politicians at the ballot box. We can form a new political party, repeal unjust laws, transition vital infrastructure to public ownership, and promote democratic governance in the workplace. But how we attain the necessary power hasn’t changed for a few hundred years. We all just witnessed one class join together to exert dominance over the other class to preserve the existing order. Just like the only way to stop someone who is punching you in the face is to start punching back, there’s only one counter to the ruthless actions of a class that is organized to defend its interests. We can either deny them our labor in defiance of long-established laws, executive orders, decrees of Congress, and threats of financial ruin for our unions and jail time for our members, or stand still and keep eating punches.