BY ELLIE GARCÍA
SAN FRANCISCO - Socialist rail workers who are members of the United Transportation Union (UTU) met here recently to discuss political questions raised by the merger under way between the UTU and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE).
Both union officialdoms have agreed to combine their respective memberships into one union. The UTU and BLE represent about 95,000 workers, more than 40 percent of all rail workers. Membership votes on the merger are projected for next fall.
The socialist rail workers had met just two weeks earlier in Newark and adopted a motion that said, "The proposed merger of the UTU and BLE unions is a move by the top officials to merge their dues bases after years of refusing to mobilize the ranks in opposition to job losses. Their claim that this merger will result in a stronger union is false."
Socialist rail workers, the motion continued, would not join the union officialdom's campaign for the merger, "but instead approach this as another opportunity to explain to our co-workers that the only way to strengthen our union is to join together to fight the carrier's offensive and to act in solidarity with the resistance of workers and farmers now expanding throughout this country."
This stance, however, was contradicted by the last sentence of the motion, which read, "Because the merger of the UTU and BLE would remove an archaic craft union obstacle to uniting rail workers, we will vote for it."
Frank Forrestal, a UTU member and a leader of the party's trade union work, reported to the meeting here and proposed the rail workers reverse their previous position of calling for a yes vote on the merger. After several hours of discussion, the rail workers voted to do so.
The greatest mistake, he said, would be to "underestimate the effect of the union officialdom's demagogy in support of the merger," said Forrestal. "Why is this demagogy so damaging?" he asked. "Precisely because of what we see today - the new mood and growing confidence among groups of workers and farmers across the country." Forrestal cited as examples the breadth of support for a series of strikes by Steelworkers in the Ohio valley, including a recent rally of 750 in support of the RMI Titanium strike in Niles, Ohio. He also pointed to the recent UAW union organizing victory of about 1,000 workers at the South Charleston Stamping and Manufacturing plant in West Virginia.
"The union tops' demagogy diverts workers from meaningful activity in the labor movement. It affects workers in a negative way because there is motion toward greater solidarity," said Forrestal.
Workers cut across craft lines in battle
"More and more rail workers want to fight," Forrestal noted. "They want to find ways to resist the carrier's offensive. They want to find ways to combat government intervention into their unions. They want to show solidarity with other rail workers.
"Last year the Militant ran front-page articles on the two short, but very important strikes by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) in May and August. In each strike we saw UTU and BLE members refusing to cross BMWE picket lines. In many places rail yards were shut tight. Rail workers got a glimpse of their power and of the importance of solidarity."
Another example Forrestal cited was the 47-day UTU strike against Canadian Pacific-owned Soo Line Railroad in 1994. After working seven years without a contract, the 1,100 UTU members called a strike, setting up picket lines in 11 Midwestern states. "About 3,000 workers in 16 craft unions honored picket lines and helped the UTU cripple CP's operation. Very few broke ranks and crossed picket lines," said Forrestal.
The most important display of solidarity came from the ranks of the BLE. "The BLE officialdom told its members to cross picket lines `to protect their craft,' " said Forrestal. "But out of 450 engineers, only a tiny handful in 11 states scabbed on the strike."
Despite the craft structure, used for decades by rail bosses to pit one union against the other, he said, "this experience shows that rail workers can be unified when a real fight breaks out."
The motion in Newark to decide to vote for the merger assumed that "amalgamation, even if engineered by the union chiefs, would benefit the ranks of labor. But only fighting against the carriers' offensive will benefit the ranks and strengthen the union. A bureaucratic merger of the two unions may place even more obstacles in the way of members who want to fight," said Forrestal.
Barbara Bowman, a UTU member from San Francisco, said she was wary of the merger "because it opened the door to more job combinations, more job cuts."
Some socialists rail workers reported that in their discussions at work they had tended to support the merger, although they did not campaign for it. This stance "had the effect of placing us on the side of the merger, albeit with objections to how it was being done - thereby easing the tension between vanguard workers and the union officials, seeming to put us on the same wave length as them," said Forrestal.
Noting any membership vote on the proposal was six months away, he added "a lot can happen" between now and then. It's too early to decide what vote to cast.
Officials' campaign heightens divisions
"The UTU officials have pursued this merger in a way that is likely to heighten divisions among rail workers rather than promote unity," said Tom Headley, a rail worker from Washington D.C.
"Where I work, I've heard expressions of opposition to this merger from some people who in the past have said they thought the two unions should merge. Last year, the UTU leadership went to the National Mediation Board (NMB) to call a representation election, thus encouraging further government intervention into union affairs - which is always a danger. Plus, the kind of intervention the UTU officials requested could only encourage further company attacks on crew size, by asking the NMB to rule that only one job classification exists where previously there were two because supposedly technology has rendered the distinction between engineer and conductor obsolete."
This course of action, which would have given the rail bosses a weapon to eliminate jobs and take another step toward greater profits at the expense of safety, was set aside by the UTU labor tops when merger discussions with BLE officials began.
Lessons from Teamsters struggles
"What's important is the content, not the form. What's important is not the structure, but the lines of resistance in the class struggle," said Forrestal. He pointed to the lessons from the labor battles that transformed the Teamsters union in the 1930s in Minneapolis and much of the Midwest into a fighting social movement. These lessons are contained in the four volume series -Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy -published by Pathfinder Press. The books are written by Farrell Dobbs, one of the central leaders of these battles and of the Socialist Workers Party.
Workers at that time were saddled with an AFL craft-union structure. Dobbs explained in Teamster Power, "Like other AFL units, Local 574 had long been characterized by conservative policies and an obsolete craft-union structure embracing few members. By 1934, however, it was drawing broad layers of workers into a militant fight against the general trucking employers of the city. The change resulted from an internal transformation the union was undergoing during the heat of battle."
The lessons learned in these struggles were applied to an 11-state over-the-road organizing drive that, for the first time, brought union power to much of the Midwest. Dobbs described the unions that were transformed as "insular baronies." In the end, through organizing the broadest possible number of workers in the trucking industry, the whole old-line craft structure began to crack, putting an end to the dominance of the relatively privileged driving crafts in the union movement.
Andrea Morell, a UTU member from Boston, made a similar point about the rise of the CIO in the 1930s. "Building industrial unions embracing thousands and thousands of mass production workers was a major step forward for the working class. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that these unions were the vanguard of a mass social movement that began to transform U.S. society," said Morell.
Rail union bureaucrats often invoke the name of Eugene Debs, a revolutionary trade union and socialist leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to give a "progressive" cover to their merger, as well as to other issues, several participants noted. "Eugene Debs's dream of a strong and undivided operating railroad union is finally coming true," read a recent editorial in UTUNews. The UTU and BLE "are joining together to create a new and even more powerful union."
"These utterances are part of the rail officialdom's demagogy," said Forrestal. "They have nothing in common with Debs, who stressed the need for independent working-class political action, who opposed U.S. imperialism's intervention in WWI and was jailed for it, and who was convinced of the need for overturning capitalist rule."
While Debs urged workers to follow a class-struggle course, Forrestal noted rail workers should be mindful of his weaknesses too. Forrestal encouraged reading Revolutionary Continuity: Marxist Leadership in the United States, 1918-1922, by Farrell Dobbs, which explains how Debs did not support the 1919 break by revolutionary left-wing workers against the reformist course of the Socialist Party (SP). Although his views clashed with the reformists and centrists who dominated the SP, Debs remained one of its leading figures, providing "left cover" for the misleadership.
Uniting rail workers, and the form it takes, will be the byproduct of real struggles by rail workers fighting to advance their interests, participants in the March 31 meeting concluded. The top union officials live in fear and hatred of the ranks of labor. "They are incapable of leading a fight against the bosses," Forrestal noted. "More and more they try to merge the dues bases of `their' unions, because they are capable of little else."
Coming out of the meeting, socialist rail workers agreed to expand their work to build solidarity with striking and locked-out workers, protesting farmers, anti-cop brutality demonstrations, immigrant rights actions, and other social protests. In the course of this, they will work to meet their goal of selling 80 copies of Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium to co-workers and others.
Ellie García is a member of the UTU in New York.
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