In the past 24 hours, a last-minute tentative agreement averted a potential earthquake of a strike by the nation’s railway workers. In announcing the deal, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh tweeted at 5:08 am, “Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country.”
As with the moment last year dubbed “Striketober,” promises of massive labor action by national unions didn’t live up to the hoopla, with the few real wins coming out of bold moves taken by rank-and-file workers. At John Deere last year, United Auto Workers members rejected their national union’s inadequate tentative agreement and forced their negotiators back to the table to get a better deal during their historic strike. IATSE’s stagehands had also threatened the first-ever national strike of their 150,000 members in the fall of 2021. In that case, though, the strike never happened—and before the rank and file even laid eyes on the proposed tentative agreement negotiated in their name, the top leaders were lighting cigars with their industry counterparts to celebrate the deal.
It seems right now that the railway workers might be in a position similar to that of their sisters and brothers in IATSE. At the core of their fight has been a grueling just-in-time scheduling system used by the bosses of the biggest rail freight companies to keep costs down at the expense of workers’ lives. In this system, workers are essentially always on call except during short, pre-booked vacation times, and are punished if they aren’t immediately available when called into work because they, God forbid, have to do something like go to the doctor. The only thing that changed overnight (literally) in the proposed tentative agreement was that these workers would not be disciplined for getting sick on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. They still have to be available at a moment’s notice for the majority of the week, with no excuses—so they’ll still have to plan their illnesses carefully.
With threats to the bosses and the titans of industry that a rail strike could have cost something only referred to obliquely as “the economy”$2 billion per day, you’d think President Biden and his Presidential Emergency Board—which he controls—could have gone a little further in meeting the most basic demands of these workers for paid sick time. This kind of short-staffing and overwork has concrete consequences for the workers who move the things that keep us alive: One union alone among the 12 different railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Weight, told me that 35 of its members died during the height of the pandemic—one-quarter of them members of the Navajo nation, as are roughly 1,000 of their 25,000 members. With 40 percent of the gross domestic product moving on US freight rail lines daily, workers had the potential to win a great deal more than simply not being disciplined when they are sick—if they were actually organized to exercise that leverage. While this may indeed be the best national agreement since deregulation in 1980 in terms of wages and some small adjustments, it could—and should—have been a lot better for workers we’ve all been calling “essential” for the past two years.
For an administration touting itself as the most pro-union in history, negotiating a deal with no paid sick time (and allowing workers to still be disciplined if they are sick four of the seven days in a week), with a pharmaceutical deal with no limits on costs to the workers, with health insurance demanding absurdly high premiums (slightly improved, but likely paired with increases in health care costs) is not even close to enough. Nor is it what we should expect from the leadership in national unions who could use the real power of their members to make industry and government understand the importance of their working lives.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, thousands of nurses ended their three-day strike today with no agreement and without a clear path to victory on any of their demands. What unites the strike in Minnesota, the strike threats by rail workers, and last year’s strike threat by stage hands are two things: First, conditions for American workers are horrible, period. The pandemic has taken a massive toll on nurses, on educators, on the whole of society. Too few staff and too much work is decimating the quality of life of most workers, while shareholders and the super-rich are buying yachts and building second and third homes—even their own personal rockets. It is plain for everyone to see that frontline workers who keep “the economy” moving are being badly abused, from nurses to railroad employees to stagehands and millions more—think farmworkers who feed the nation in California, where rumored Democratic presidential hopeful Gavin Newsom just vetoed a bill to help them to unionize.
But what also unites the nurses who walked picket lines for three days in Minnesota to the railway workers to the stagehands’ national union is a lack of preparation for any of these strikes, real or potential. Fist-pounding and shoving picket signs into the hands of workers who have done no escalating preparations for labor action at all, who have never been on strike, who did none of what more effective unions do in the lead-up to a credible strike threat, results in disgruntled members, alienated workers, and a demobilized, unmotivated electoral base—the last thing the Democratic Party needs heading into the midterms and the 2024 elections. People concerned about justice in the US don’t need to waste time arguing over whether workers should pull the lever for Democrats this November versus voting for a Republican Party so off the rails that it is engaged in forcing birth; stripping voting rights from Black people, Latinos, and others; and appointing US Supreme Court judges who have already gutted workers’ rights. But we do actually need to debate exactly how the hell we will successfully turn this country around in time to avert an even worse societal disaster.
The answer to that can be seen in two unions that waged successful strikes in the past two weeks, having done the patient work of preparing their members to execute the kind of serious and durable strike action that delivers real, power-building gains in their contracts: the teachers in Seattle and the nursing home workers in Pennsylvania. There are great unions in America today that know how to fight to win. They are mostly at the local, not national, levcl, and they are unions that understand that a strike is a muscle built through its use, not a command turned on with the flick of a switch. Workers’ representatives can’t just snap their fingers and have workers go on strike any more than a person can walk into a gym with no previous experience lighting weights and bench press 400 pounds. Muscles atrophy, and so do unions.
But local battles will not be enough given the catastrophe we’re facing. We need national leaders more like those in the United Kingdom right now, where the demand that high inflation not be balanced on the backs of the multiracial working class is being paired with the kind of mass disruptive power required to win it. In the UK, national strike campaigns are being waged right now by the postal workers, the entire university sector, and employees who do all kinds of work in the National Health Service, and it will take this kind of brave and methodical scale-up to do anything more than nudge the needle.
It’s high time to reframe the expectations American workers should have for our quality of life, the quality of our national union leadership, and the Democratic Party. There isn’t time anymore for risk-averse unions who are more comfortable with a mediator or arbitration panel than with the necessary work of forcing the titans of today’s industries to share a far greater portion of their profits with the people actually doing the work. Thankfully, rank-and-file workers are rising up everywhere, forming one independent union after another. Workers in local unions are striking. Yet the national leadership remains deaf to the untapped anger in the field, which needs be channeled effectively into strikes that increase working people’s confidence that they deserve to and can live better. It’s only through this kind of groundswell of well-founded hope that we can move masses of people to the voting booth to pull the lever for a party that still offers more rhetoric than action.