Railroad Workers Can Build on Seeds of Change

On December 2, 2022, as Joe Biden admired the view of Boston Harbor alongside William, Prince of Wales, the Boston DSA labor working group helped organize a protest rally against Biden’s having signed the imposition of the Railway Labor Act on the railroad workers earlier in the day.  The protest received wide and favorable media attention in Boston, and at this writing at the end of December, remains the largest single demonstration in support of the demands of the railroad workers.

Twelve railroad unions were involved in the negotiations leading up to government intervention, and although the imposed settlement gave them some of what their leaders bargained for, the lack of paid sick days was a major defeat and disappointment. At the time, Biden said that he would push for the sick days by other means. The workers remain without the sick days, and the imposition of the Railway Labor Act has led to fractious debates on the Left and revolt in the ranks of some of the unions involved.

The debates within the Left threaten to derail (pun intended) the serious work of supporting the beleaguered workers. What is a left-wing labor activist or supporter to do?

Rank-and-file caucuses of railroad workers show the way forward

Two caucuses of rank-and-file rail workers are still organizing to win specific demands for paid sick leave, scheduling, and staffing relief, and also to remold their unions into a more coherent structure covering all railroad workers. They are Railroad Workers United (RWU) and the BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division) Rank and File United.

Railroad Workers United [RWU] is a cross-union caucus of reform-minded members from most of the 12 rail unions.  Its positions include nationalization of the rail industry and the creation of a single industrial union to include all railroad workers.  It meets at the national level and has a steering committee and an organizer.  In the last months, RWU has received many membership inquiries and leads on which it intends to follow up and has raised more than $26,000 through a GoFundMe site to hire a second part-time organizer.

Using the funding from the GoFundMe site, the RWU now intends to hire two part-time students to help them organize, one of them to research and help organize a campaign to nationalize the railroads.

RWU’s weekly newsletter is a go-to source for reports from workers around the country and provides links to detailed analyses in the left press, articles from the mainstream media, and the trade press of the rail freight industry.

The BMWED Rank and File United, associated with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, is the only well-organized activist membership organization within a single rail union. .

Corey Rall worked as an organizer for the BMWED from 2014-2021, organizing the basis for what has become the BMWED Rank & File United. Rall has described in detail, how in November one of its leaders, Deven Mentz, the BMWED legislative director for North Dakota, helped lead a delegation of 26 BMWED members to D.C. to lobby Congress for paid sick leave. Members of the delegation met with the staffs of Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush to enlist their support.  Other IBT legislative directors had met in September with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (A)C) in Queens.  The result was the narrowly defeated vote in Congress to attach the paid sick leave amendment to the imposition of the Railway Labor Act.

Far from being discouraged, the rail rank-and-file caucuses promoted a congressional letter initiated by Bernie Sanders and all members of the Squad that gathered 15 signatories from the Senate and 57 from the House. 

DSA members might check the list of signers of this letter urging Biden to mandate seven paid sick leave days by executive mandate.  If your Senator or Representative has signed the letter, call their office to thank them and urge them to act on it by contacting the White House.  If not a signer, urge them to sign the letter and contact the White House to demand executive action.

An unfulfilled dream of union unity

To understand the challenges facing the rail rank-and-file caucuses, let’s go back to Eugene Debs and the history of the rail industry and rail unions.

The railroad industry was a capitalist juggernaut widely detested by Populist farmers and rail workers throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

Rail worker Debs’s dream to create one Big Railroad Union was crushed in the Pullman Strike of 1894.  With this failure to create a unified industrial union of railroad workers, numerous “brotherhoods” based on crafts came to make up the fragmented rail union structure.  Until recently, these brotherhoods excluded most women and African American workers, with the exception of the sleeping car attendants and porters, a leading force in the early civil rights movement.

The Railway Labor Act, enacted in 1926, effectively created closed shops, with dues flowing in without much effort. The brotherhoods also came to rely on the RLA for getting settlements through legislation without the exertion of preparing for, let alone calling strikes. 

Dysfunction in rail bargaining 2022

The dead hand of this tradition meant that in 2022 the rail unions had no machinery available to mount any kind of a comprehensive campaign to publicize their demands or even work together to make elementary preparations to strike if necessary. 

 Since 1926, Congress has invoked the terms of the Railway Labor Act to impose a settlement and ban a strike some 18 times.

 Everyone–leadership, reform leaders, and most rank-and-file workers– expected a settlement to be imposed under the RLA. The rail industry, fully aware of this, bargained superficially and waited for the contracts to expire, when they knew that the threat of national chaos and disruption would lead to the imposition of a settlement.  If a strike had been called on December 9 after the contracts expired, it probably would have had enough support to cause considerable disruption to the rail freight network.  The tradition of respecting picket lines remains strong, even among the fragmented and often quarreling rail craft unions.

But how long could it have been maintained?  Local members of the RWU and SMART-TD (Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal Workers) commented to me during protest rallies that many workers badly wanted the upfront large bonus payouts under the contract, after several years of futile bargaining.  They thought that many of their fellow workers would take the payouts and then quit the railroads. This would exacerbate the staffing shortage deliberately caused by the railroads’ PSR programs.

“Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR) is an operating plan that has been adopted by all the major railroads since 2018. It consists of running longer and heavier trains, utilizing fewer locomotives, shuttering diesel shops, expediting train and engine inspections, and cutting back on track maintenance forces and practically every aspect of the operation. According to the RWU,

“This operating plan has been propelled into the forefront in recent years by the quest for short-term profits by hedge fund investors with no concern about the long-term viability nor health of the rail industry. While PSR might help to deliver record profits and all-time low operating ratios, this operating plan is in fact a thinly veiled disguise that relies on deferred maintenance, lax safety standards, a decline in infrastructure investment, and reduced labor costs to succeed.”  

Railroad workers continue to face other formidable obstacles including the following:

The rail freight industry

Although supplemented by air and sea freight, freight by rail remains a crucial sector.  It is dominated by four major corporations, well known to railroad workers and their unions, but largely invisible to the general public. The industry is currently enjoying an upswing in profit margins, accelerated by the pandemic and in particular by its widespread adaptation of Precision Scheduled Railroading (see above), which has led to drastic cuts in the workforce and pushed the remaining workers to despair over intensified work schedules, isolation from their families, and brutal scheduling practices. 

The rail corporations have little current incentive to bargain in good faith with the fragmented rail craft unions.  The provisions of the Railway Labor Act allow Congress to impose a settlement and prohibit unions from striking.

The Biden administration

The political power of the rail freight industry in D.C. is so strong that Biden gave in to its pressure to impose the Tentative Agreement on rail unions without the paid sick leave or other scheduling or staffing measures that would have made it more acceptable to railroad workers.   The industry, together with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, launched a fierce last-minute lobbying drive in the Senate to dissuade several Republican senators from casting their half-promised votes for Bernie Sanders’ s paid sick leave amendment.

When it came down to a choice, Biden and his administration sided with the rail barons.

The fragmented current structure of the railroad unions

The fragmented union structure of the railroad unions follows historically from the defeats suffered by Debs and his one big Railroad Union.   The surviving rail unions were and remain based on specific crafts.  The BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) can be traced to 1863, but it only affiliated to the Teamsters in 2004.  SMART-TD (Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal Workers) is the largest of the craft unions. The BMWED and BLET Teamsters locals follow in size, but all memberships have been slashed deeply by staff cuts under the PSR.  Several smaller unions are attached to a potpourri of other national unions.

This archaic and inefficient structure prevents the development of any strategic rail union plan.   Most of the individual union leaders seem conservative and hidebound, but even replacing all of them with more militant leaders might not make much of a difference.  These unions negotiate separately with individual rail corporations and hence have little bargaining power, let alone any collective planning process that could mount a comprehensive campaign to pressure the industry or educate the general public.

Seeds of change sprout from the latest confrontation

Nevertheless, there are promising indications that the caucuses of rail rank-and-file workers are gathering momentum and coherence.

The contract rejection votes demonstrated a deep and growing discontent within the membership of the rail unions, both with their leaders and with the government.  In mid-December, in what had looked like a quixotic write-in campaign, Eddie Hall was elected president of the BLET-IBT.     The BMWED and BLET, though both affiliated to the IBT, have seldom cooperated on anything in recent times. Hall’s victory could strengthen the hand of reformers within the Teamsters.   Teamster President Sean O’Brien, who was endorsed by the TDU, has already signaled an openness to the TDU by attending the Labor Notes Conference.   If the rail craft unions begin to move toward consolidation into a single industrial union, one possible place to position it would be as an autonomous division of the Teamsters.  This is of course something rail rank-and-file workers and their elected leaders will have to decide.

The rail unions have a strong incentive to reorganize their structures and to become more coherent and effective in order to take advantage of the opportunities for bargaining even in 2023. The railroad companies are likely to face major staffing problems because of workers quitting or retiring after receiving their large contract payouts. Several rail companies have already announced that they are reviewing scheduling and absence policies, anticipating that many railroad workers will quit in early 2023, placing further pressures on already inadequate staffing.  The rail unions, bolstered by growing public awareness of the chaos that results from poor management planning and personnel cuts can demand to bargain collectively over the very issues that are of greatest interest to railroad workers.   Developing a comprehensive strategic plan that includes preparations for coordinated bargaining, pressuring the government for paid sick leave mandates and other executive regulations, and developing a legislative strategy is very much in the interests of railroad workers and their unions.  The rank-and-file caucuses can take the lead in pushing for a strategic approach to win concessions on scheduling and absence policies.

The legislative plan could include the RWU demand for nationalization of the railroad industry.  Though not attainable in the short run, it would give the rail bosses another headache. A legislative demand that might be more attainable is to amend the Railway Labor Act to remove the perverse incentive for the rail industry to rely on Congress to impose a strike ban rather than bargain in good faith with unions capable of organizing a strike.

Even if paid sick leave and other scheduling and staffing demands cannot be achieved through bargaining or governmental executive actions now, a better organized and mobilized unions of rail workers could lay a basis for success in the next round of contract bargaining that begins two years from now.   More than a century later, railroad workers are beginning to recover the great dream of democratic socialist Eugene Debs. The recent letter from RWU Organizer Ron Kaminkow concludes with a citation from Eugene Debs as founder of the American Railway Union:

“We need to have faith in each other. We are in precisely the same position. We depend absolutely on each other. We know that without solidarity, nothing is possible, and that with solidarity nothing is impossible.”

Together with rank-and-file workers democratic socialists can help create a movement that will transform America.

"We're all part of the working class that produces the wealth and without us nothing could happen. And so, when one of us is under attack, we're all under attack," - Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United General Secretary. (Image: A More Perfect Union)
Poster by A More Perfect Union, via Hudson Vslley DSA