From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters
Kansas City, Kans.—Congress has done its best to become the nation’s strikebreaker by forcing a five-year contract on railroad workers who had been set to go on strike on Dec. 12. Union members in four of the 12 unions had voted to reject a tentative agreement that negotiators had reached with six major rail carriers in September.
President Biden, calling himself a good pro-union Democrat, spearheaded this attack on workers’ right to strike, justifying his siding with the railroads by citing damage to the economy—which is the idea of a strike, to make the owners give in.
The railroads crowed about the 24% raise and $5,000 bonus due workers in the tentative agreement that Congress has now imposed—actually quite meager considering the many years without raises. But it was a struggle over workers’ time, not pay, that led to voting down the contract.
TIME OFF CAN’T BE BOUGHT
Railroads have carried out layoffs just to please Wall Street investors in recent years (BNSF has shed 30% of its work force since 2015). They are worshiping at the altar of the latest “just-in-time” scheme, Precision Scheduled Railroading, to minimize delays in moving rolling stock by claiming all of a worker’s life for the company.
That has left the surviving workers who were traditionally on call with as little as a single guaranteed day off.
Imagine never straying farther than the two-hour report time, and because of job cuts actually called in to work more than 300 days a year, at any hour of the day or night, and maybe for 14 hours at a time. It is humanly impossible to comply, but rather than easing the strain on workers BNSF unilaterally introduced a 30-point scheme to discipline and even fire violators.
Karl Marx had assessed the 19th-Century agitation for the 10-hour day for English factory workers as a greater achievement than the French Revolution’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man: to determine “When does my day begin and when does it end?”
The struggles of railroad workers to know when their day ends, when their week ends, when their month ends demonstrates that, until capitalism is rooted out, workers’ gains of one generation can be taken back or retrogression can even make conditions worse.
WHICH SIDE ARE THEY ON?
Biden stepped into the role of a 19th-Century president: Grover Cleveland sent troops to Chicago in 1894 to break the Pullman strike, at the cost of 70 lives, after Pullman fired workers and sliced wages of the rest.
“Socialists” in Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (except for Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders) ended up on the opposite side of the class line from Socialist Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union back in 1894, by voting to quash workers’ right to strike today—while exhorting railroad workers to “Stay Strong!”: “We Have Your Backs!”
The overreach by Democrats has provided an opening for Republicans to play games themselves. Suddenly Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are presenting themselves as friends of the working class by voting against the imposed contract. They also voted for the face-saving bill that would have slapped a band-aid on railroad workers’ inability to get time off by guaranteeing them seven paid sick days, knowing that bill would fail.
For Biden and the Congressional “Socialists” and for rail bosses, the matter is now settled. But the railroad workers who have not yet been listened to will likely still have their say.