By Henry De Groot
WORCESTER, MA — Dozens of railroad workers, socialists, union members, and community supporters rallied in front of Union Station on Tuesday, two weeks after Congress voted to impose a contract which rail workers had voted down.
The rally was part of a national day of action called by SMART-TD, the largest rail union, and organized with the support of Railroad Workers United (RWU), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the Independent Socialist Group (ISG).
“Preventing us from exerting our right to strike as union workers, Congress has imposed this contract which was voted down by most of the freight rail workers in the United States,” said freight conductor Nick Wurst at the rally.
Wurst condemned the contract, pointing out that not only does it not include any paid sick time, but it also does not adequately address healthcare costs, vacation time, or the rising cost of living.
“For all these reasons it was voted down. There is a massive crisis going on in freight railroading — a crisis of not enough workers [and] people working too many hours and far away from home, unable to schedule doctor’s appointments.”
“The fight is far from over. We are going to continue to organize within our unions and in our workplaces,” Wurst promised, looking already to 2025 when the new contract expires. Wurst is active in RWU and ISG.
Other railroad workers speaking at the rally pointed to the injustice of denying those who worked through the pandemic something as basic as paid sick time, including at Keolis, a French multinational contracted by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to operate the Commuter Rail. Workers also expressed solidarity with the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) in the United Kingdom, a militant rail worker union which has taken strike action this week, reading out a statement of solidarity sent by RMT members.
Earlier this fall, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, a former union leader and Boston mayor, brokered a tentative agreement between the 12 rail unions and the major freight carriers. Railroad workers are covered under the 1920s-era Railway Labor Act (RLA), a law which imposes greater restrictions on strike action than the National Labor Relations Act covering most other private-sector workers.
The agreement brokered by Walsh on behalf of the Biden administration did not include paid sick days, one of the railroad workers’ main demands. In part for this reason, four unions representing about 55% of the workers voted to reject the tentative agreement. After a “cooling off” period mandated by the RLA, these unions eventually set a strike date of December 9.
With the strike threatening to disrupt an economy already wracked by supply chain woes at an estimated cost of $2 billion per day, Biden and Congress were quick to intervene. On November 28, Biden called on Congress to impose the contract without modification or delay. On December 2, Congress voted to force Walsh’s tentative agreement on the workers, denying their right to strike, with Democrats attempting to cover their anti-labor action by pushing a symbolic bill to add in paid sick days which was all but doomed to wither in the face of the Senate’s filibuster.
Speaking at the rally for Worcester DSA, Cory Bisbee, who is on the organizing committee for the union drive in his workplace, called out the failure of Congress to stand with workers.
“Democrats seem to think that unions just exist to provide votes and volunteers, donations and photo-ops,” he said. “But when it comes down to the wire… they know what side they’re on, and it’s not on our side.”
Earlier this month, RWU and DSA worked together to put together a last-minute rally to confront Biden for his betrayal of railroad workers when he flew into Boston and met with Prince William in Dorchester.
Chuck Abbate, a veteran of the industry and a conductor on the commuter rail, spoke with Working Mass about how decades of deregulation have led the industry to a crisis and how workers plan to fight back. Abbate is a member of SMART-TD and also active in RWU.
As Abbate tells it, “many years ago, staffing wasn’t an issue… If you go back 40 years to the Staggers Rail (deregulation) Act, the unions were starting to wane and had to concede to certain things.”
But unions “crossed the Rubicon” from retreat to capitulation in the 1990s, at the same time that financialization of the industry took a front seat, as “the Wall Street types started controlling [company operations].”
In 2009, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway spent $26 billion to buy the 77% of BNSF, the country’s largest rail company, that it did not already own. With eyes only for increased profits, company leadership drawn not from operations but from the financial side of the business began to introduce the “precision scheduled railroading” (PSR) model, similar to the extreme Taylorism found in Amazon warehouses. Under the PSR system, workers are on a points system for attendance, and are penalized for missing work regardless of whether they are sick or attending a funeral.
BNSF and its main competitor, Union Pacific Railway, have a duopoly on freight rail which stretches from Vancouver to Houston and Los Angeles to Chicago. BNSF alone hauls enough coal to generate around one quarter of the electricity produced in the United States. Two other mega-railroad companies, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, are currently engaged in a pending merger worth a combined $27 billion. For Abbate, “the super-sized railroads have too much power and too much control over the economy. They’re too big.”
Abbate recalls that this process escalated after the 2007-08 financial crisis, with some 40,000 job cuts from then until the pandemic so railroads could be run “mean and lean.” Cuts were coupled with “a real mass exodus of people, even upwards of 10-15 years [seniority], ‘cause they’re not gonna live like this anymore.”
“I mean myself I’ve missed a lot of Christmases,” he relayed. “That’s just what it is. But now it’s at this level that I’ve never seen.”
And Wall Street’s overhaul of railroads has meant more than just missed holidays or funerals as unjust as that is. In 2013 a 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, setting off an explosion and fire which destroyed half the town center.
For Abbate, “once again that comes from not having proper staffing, not having proper safety equipment, and 47 people were incinerated in that crash which was totally avoidable. And the fact that the head of that railroad, Ed Burkhardt, never went to jail is disgraceful… The heads of these companies need to go to prison. Blood is on their hands.”
The Lac-Mégantic disaster was just among the most horrific examples of what happens when cost-cutting CEOs erode staffing levels.
Working-Class Fight Back
Abbate reflected on the increased militancy among rail workers, feelings which have only escalated in the last two weeks. “I remember Occupy Wall Street 10 years ago. Maybe this is the second time around. Everything has come to a point — the cutting of workers, relocating workers — you didn’t have that [before]. Life was much more normal.”
“This goes back to these CEOs, they never worked on the ground, they don’t have bloody knuckles, they never changed a knuckle on a train in a snowstorm or anything like that, what we do. They’ve lived in this little ivory tower, but I think at this point it’s starting to come in on them.”
As to what changes need to be made, Abbate feels that “the laws are basically rigged in favor of business. There needs to be a refutation of the RLA, because management is never going to negotiate in good faith because they hold all the cards and they’ve held them for years. If it comes to wildcatting, so be it.”
And Abbate is not alone in his consternation. In 2020 he joined Railroad Workers United. According to Wurst, only one of the 12 railroad unions has an active reform caucus, BMWED, so RWU serves as a “cross-union solidarity organization,” a mega-caucus of sorts which has been organizing since 2008. As Nick sees RWU, “it’s about all of us, from the bottom up changing things, reclaiming our unions.”
But while RWU has done a solid job organizing the militant wing of the railroad unions, the lack of a reform movement in 11 of the 12 unions indicates that the railroad workers’ movement is still in the early stages of a revival. Still, with the recent contract dispute things are developing fast; just this week the old-guard president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), one of the two Teamster-affiliated rail unions, was ousted by a relatively unknown challenger in a union election.
Workers Respond to Biden, Walsh’s Strike-Breaking
Biden has presented himself as the most pro-labor president in U.S. history, and it is certainly true that compared to the low bar set by Clinton and Obama — not to mention Bush or Trump — he is a modest improvement. The first two years of his administration have seen not-insignificant progress made in the field of worker rights, including raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and calling for rule changes in the classification of “gig workers.”
Socialists know that these reforms are not enough, but we also know that it is false to draw an equivalency between a faux-progressive president and proto-fascist one. And we should remember that the gains that have been won under Biden were won by the massive support for Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist program, which forced Biden to make concessions to the left.
While progressives have had a mixed relationship with Biden during his first two years, his administration’s move to deny railroad workers the right to strike marks the obvious limit of how far the Democratic Party establishment is willing to go to cover its left flank. While Democrats did push a bill including sick leave after voting to adopt the tentative agreement, this bill was all but predestined to fail and was an obvious attempt at symbolic performance — corporations get the goodies; workers get theater.
For Abbate, “corporations run the government, so whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, it’s the same can of beans. One is slightly [the] lesser of evils,” he said, placing most of the blame on the Republicans for the failure of sick leave to pass. But Abbate was also incensed with Manchin and Sinema, pointing out that “Manchin owns a fucking coal mine, he’s the most unfriendly labor Democrat. [With] the Democratic Party, Wall Street is running the show.”
Cutting closer to home for Abbate is weighing Labor Secretary Walsh’s role in the rail dispute.
Speaking at a panel “The New Power of Labor” in Boston earlier this fall, Walsh declared “there’s no reason to be afraid of labor” and that he has “no problem” with the rich getting richer, before recalling his tenure as Boston’s mayor when he ran the city “just like a business.”
At the panel Walsh had outlined how he secured the tentative agreement, as “[Rail company administrators and union representatives] came to the [U.S. Department of Labor’s] Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C. We had messaging, we had two rooms set up for them, and we had meetings going back and forth. We got them to talk again. I gave them a little bit of food… and after 20 straight hours of continually going back and forth in some tough negotiations and tough conversations, at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Walsh recounted, “we had a framework of a tentative agreement just a few hours before the deadline.”
With this tentative agreement, President Biden declared it an “important win for our economy,” and the media celebrated that a strike was averted. But the rank-and-file of the unions had a different view.
Abbate relayed that he “was actually excited that [Walsh] had been picked by Biden for Labor [Secretary], and then you want to shove this down our throats? He worked in unions that had all these goodies, in the trades. So the hypocrisy is just jaw-dropping.”
A Split In the “Squad”
More complicated for socialists is reckoning with the votes of three of DSA’s four members in Congress, who made the decision to vote for the legislation which forced the tentative agreement on rail workers. The votes by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman — Rashida Tlaib voted no — to back the legislation has sparked controversy within DSA and the wider socialist and progressive left, leading to debates about how DSA should respond and a wider conversation about socialist elected strategy.
Before the vote, DSA’s National Political Committee, the organization’s highest leadership body between conventions, put out a statement which held that “any member of Congress who votes yes on the tentative agreement is siding with billionaires and forcing a contract on rail workers that does not address their most pressing demand of paid sick days.” In a follow up statement after the vote, the NPC wrote:
We are proud of DSA member Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s vote against the TA, and for sick days. Any vote by Congress to impose a bad contract on workers sides with the boss, and contradicts democratic socialist values.
We disagree and are disappointed with the decision of DSA members Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Cori Bush to needlessly vote to enforce the TA.
The NPC’s statement reaffirmed DSA’s commitment to rail workers and announced that the NPC would host a “mass call” with membership to address the issue.
Some, including Labor Notes’ Jonah Furman, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, and Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht have pointed out that squad members were encouraged to vote “yes-yes” by some members of RWU and by others in the labor movement.
Others have condemned the votes as strike-breaking and a betrayal of socialist values, with Seattle DSA launching a petition calling for an investigation and accountability, including potential disciplinary action. The petition also calls for the NPC to hold a participatory town-hall including the DSA members in Congress and railroad workers.
For Wurst, “the actions of AOC, Bowman, and Bush are not surprising at all. They fell in line with the rest of the Democratic Party… …It makes it very clear that workers everywhere need our own party where we have real democratic control and accountability over policy and over the members who run for and win office.”
Some 20 chapters — including Cleveland, Providence, and Portland — have signed the Seattle petition, as have a handful of YDSA chapters, the AfroSocialists & Socialists of Color Caucus, the Marxist Unity Group caucus, and the Reform & Revolution caucus. In response to the NPC’s second statement, Seattle DSA released a follow-up letter which asks for clarity on whether the NPC’s mass call will follow Seattle’s proposed participatory format.
Some comrades have even called for DSA to expel the three members in Congress, most notably Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant, who is a member of both Socialist Alternative and DSA. In response, DSA’s social democratic North Star caucus has all but called for the expulsion of Sawant from the DSA for entryism, attacking Socialist Alternative as an “ultraleft cult.”
While DSA’s bylaws do allow for members to be expelled for participating in democratic-centralist organizations, they do not require expulsion. If comrades were expelled — either for their votes in Congress or for being dual members — it would be an escalation of internal factional disputes which until now have mostly been a war of tweets and resolutions.
As for the future of the railroad workers, what is clear is that resistance to unfair working conditions will continue, led largely by workers organized in Railroad Workers United. Whatever way RWU decides to keep up the fight, socialists will be ready for the long-haul.
Henry De Groot is the managing editor of Working Mass and a member of Boston DSA.