PSL Editorial – Rail workers’ struggle shows the power of the organized working class

Photo credit: Teamsters

Today, 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. 

That top level government officials – and the president himself! – were compelled to make the grievances of railroad workers their top priority is testament to the huge power that the working class holds when it is organized and willing to fight. The politicians got involved because they were terrified that 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. Without the workers, nothing can function. 

The injustices faced by rail workers typically receive no attention whatsoever by those in political office, and the mainstream media is happy to follow suit. But in recent days, rail workers forced their way into the center of national politics and made their situation impossible to ignore. The entire working class should draw inspiration from their willingness to courageously stand up for basic dignity on the job.

For years, rail corporations have been reducing their workforces in a long-term effort to cut costs and boost profits. The result has been unbearable conditions where 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 inhumane model is referred to by the capitalists as “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” But fundamentally this is a common scheme that workers in all sectors are familiar with – force employees to do more for the same pay (or less), and laugh all the way to the bank. 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.” This struggle is about standing up and saying NO to this type of abuse, and it serves as an inspiration to all workers being subjected to similar inhumane conditions. 

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 unfair 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 rail workers’ struggle is a fight between the billionaires and the whole working class. They deserve all of our support and solidarity.

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