LINCOLN, Neb. — Over 115,000 rail union members are counting down to early December to see if they’ll go out on strike in their ongoing fight to defend their jobs, safety and health from assault by the rail bosses. And the bosses have the aid of the Joseph Biden White House, which is threatening to have Congress step in, bar a strike and impose an anti-working-class contract on the workers.
The bosses and federal government use the anti-labor Railway Labor Act to tie workers up in red tape and strictures against going on strike. It is only now — years since negotiations began — that the law says a strike may be possible. But Congress says it has the power to step in, end any strike and dictate contract terms. The question is, who is stronger.
While members of a number of the smaller 12 rail unions have agreed to contracts, majorities in some of the larger ones — like the 23,000-strong Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees — voted down their contract and have set a Dec. 4 strike deadline if no further progress is made in negotiations. The Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers have also voted contracts down.
The two largest unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) are voting now and will announce results Nov. 21. All 12 unions have pledged that if any one goes out on strike, they all go out.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way issued a statement Nov. 9, saying the union does not want or need Congress to intervene. The railroads “should provide all rail workers with paid sick leave,” it said. The companies have the money, it “would literally cost one penny of every dollar of the railroads’ record profits.”
A matter of life and death
The urgency of rail workers’ fight to hire more workers, for more regular schedules and larger crews, and for an end to punitive absentee policies and other issues was underscored by the fact that eight rail workers have been killed on the job in the past 2 1/2 months.
Michael Poushyk, a 49-year-old track worker in the BMWE, was killed Nov. 9 near Dodge City, Kansas, while loading rail trackage with a boom truck.
A BMWE welder on the Union Pacific near Spring, Texas, was killed Nov. 5 in an explosion. He was the fourth UP rail worker killed on the job since September.
Victor Martins and Donato Fiocca, members of Cement Masons and Plasterers Union Local 592, who were working as subcontractors on PATCO transit tracks, were struck and killed Oct. 14 by a commuter train on a bridge near Philadelphia that was supposed to be shut down for repair.
These workers are casualties of the bosses’ drive for profits that treats employees as minor cogs in their machine. In his February annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway stockholders, Warren Buffet, owner of the BNSF Railway, boasted of its record net earnings of $6 billion in 2021.
Class-conscious union workers insist no worker has to die on the job! This is a key part of the fight for workers and our unions to take greater and greater control of the work we perform out of the bosses’ hands.
Backed by the Biden administration, rail bosses have fought to keep attendance policies, work schedules, paid sick time off and crew size out of any contract, claiming those will be dealt with carrier by carrier after the wage package and health insurance costs are settled industry-wide.
Biden and his labor secretary, Marty Walsh, have both said they will call on Congress to shut down any rail strike and impose a contract on workers.
For workers and farmers alliance
Over 300 national agribusiness and state agriculture trade associations, organizations of bosses in the meat, grain, cotton, and lumber industries, wrote to the Biden administration and to Congress demanding they prevent any shutdown by the rail unions.
While these boss outfits claim to speak for farmers, the fact is they’re raking in millions while the farm debt in the U.S. hit $496 billion in 2022, the vast majority on the backs of smaller working farmers. Growing numbers of land speculators, like Bill Gates, now the largest landholder in the country, see farmland as a safe investment as the crisis of capitalism deepens. Their moves to protect their profits keeps the land out of the hands of those who till it.
“The Farm Bureau and these many business associations never call for better wages or working conditions for any workers. They fight them tooth and nail,” Iowa working farmer George Naylor told the Militant Nov. 14. “If we had an agricultural system that supported family farmers, instead of the sharks that profit from the farmers, a rail workers strike would be seen as an opportunity for solidarity with like-minded people who work for a living.”
“I sympathize with the railroad workers,” said grain farmer and part-time trucker Vernon Jantzen, vice president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “The owners of the railroads are more interested in the shareholders than the rail workers.
“I’m for more workers on the trains,” he added. “It was much safer for those farming near the railroad right-of-way when rail workers were riding the rear end of the train as well as on the engine.”
A working-class road forward
“I sent my ballot in last week, voting no, because the agreement presented from the rail employers and our union officials did not place union rail workers in a stronger position to oppose and reverse the repressive attendance policies, the ongoing speedup harassments, and a crew size that makes the work safer,” Lance Anton, a SMART-TD conductor here in Lincoln, told the Militant after his union meeting Nov. 9. “Too much is left unsettled in the current agreement.”
“Our unions should emulate what the Canadian school workers in Ontario have just proven, anti-labor laws aimed at preventing workers from striking can be beaten back,” he said. “All rail union workers should have the right to strike to settle grievances if the railroad employers don’t meet the improvements in our wages and working conditions we need.”
Some 55,000 school workers in Ontario went on strike Nov. 4, even though the provincial government had adopted draconian anti-labor legislation that imposed massive fines on both their union and every single worker if they did so.
After two days of mass actions and widespread union solidarity, the government backed off and agreed to rescind the law and negotiate.
This shows what can be accomplished when workers rely on themselves and their unions as opposed to looking to the capitalist government.
Helen Meyers in Minneapolis contributed to this article.