Rail workers’ struggle shows the power of the organized working class

If rail workers went on strike, freight rail across the country would be paralyzed. The working class holds enormous power when it is organized and willing to fight.

September 19, 2022 by Liberation News
Photo: Teamsters

On September 15, a tentative agreement was reached between unions representing railroad workers and major rail corporations, for now averting an impending nationwide strike. The agreement was the product of round-the-clock negotiations ahead of a Friday deadline. These talks involved Joe Biden along with the Secretaries of Labor and Transportation and other senior administration officials. Representing workers were the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART-Transportation Division.

Top level government officials, even the president himself, were compelled to make the grievances of railroad workers their top priority. This is testament to the huge power that the working class holds when it is organized and willing to fight. If rail workers went on strike, freight rail across the country would be paralyzed, along with many industries that rely on goods delivered by train and commuter rail systems that run on freight rail tracks.

Mainstream media in the US typically does not report on workers’ struggle. But in recent days, rail workers forced their way into the center of national politics and made their situation impossible to ignore.

For years, rail corporations have been reducing their workforces in a long-term effort to cut costs and boost profits. The result have been conditions in which dangerous workloads and unreasonable schedules deny workers the ability to lead a normal life with their families. From 2015 through 2021, the major railroads cut their staffing from 161,000 to 114,000 even though the amount of freight being transported was increasing.

This model is referred to by the railway companies as “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” But fundamentally this is a common scheme that workers in all sectors are familiar with—forcing employees to do more for the same pay (or less). Rail workers are not guaranteed sick days and are forced to be on call around the clock for long stretches of time. Dennis Pierce, the president of BLET, explained, “[W]e get fired for going to the doctor. This one thing has our members most enraged. We have guys who were punished for taking time off for a heart attack and COVID.”

Railroad unions are up against some of the wealthiest people in the world. BNSF, one of the major rail companies, is owned by Warren Buffett, the 7th richest person on the planet with a nearly $100 billion fortune. In the days leading up to the potential strike, BNSF lobbied Congress to pass a law that would force rail workers back on the job without any sick days.

The Railway Labor Act of 1926 also imposes restrictions on the collective rights of employees in this sector. Union members already voted back in July to strike, but the Railway Labor Act allows the government to impose a mandatory “cooling off period” before such an action is allowed to go forward.

In a joint statement, the presidents of SMART-TD and BLET stated that the contract that has been negotiated guarantees, “the ability to take time away from work to attend to routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.” The deal is also reported to include a 24% raise over the course of five years and annual bonuses amounting to $5,000. Workers still need to review the agreement and decide whether or not to accept. A vote open to all members of the unions involved will take place in the coming days.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that was originally published on Liberation News.