Last Tuesday, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents over 52,000 railroad workers, voted overwhelmingly to strike on July 18th. Their contract expired in June 2019 and there has been no progress in negotiations for a new one since then.
The workers are demanding a wage increase to match the skyrocketing inflation, along with relief from their corporate employers’ new “Precision Scheduled Railroading” policy, shortened as “Hi Viz,” a cost-cutting measure which forces workers to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The men are exhausted, their marriages are suffering, and their pay is not enough to cover their bills nor does it reflect the amount of sacrifices they are expected to make. In the past six years, carriers have laid off 29% of railway workers to increase profit margins, which has led to workers having to fight through 12 hour shifts for up to 14 days in a row.
Union negotiators have shown evidence that railway carriers have been enjoying record profits throughout the COVID pandemic, yet in spite of this, contract offers from these monopoly capitalists have remained worse than even what these unions had won before. After years of insolence, 99.5% of them have voted to speak the only language capital understands: a strike.
The last time railway workers launched a strike was in 1992. The action only lasted 48 hours, but it cost big business an eye-watering $100 million dollars.
But the America of 2022 is much less free than the country of 30 years ago, even under the self-described “most pro-union president” Joe Biden. Last January, Federal Judge Mark Pittman blocked two railroad unions from striking to protest being overworked with a dubious injunction. Railroad workers have complained that current conditions under the “Hi Viz” system is causing massive train delays and even a spike in accidents, which in turn has been leading to supply chain issues. Judge Pittman was unmoved by these concerns and ruled to protect the profits of the shareholders at BNSF.
It has been widely reported that the Biden administration on Monday will be using its federal emergency powers to legally prevent this new attempt at a strike, an act of cronyism and plutocratic tyranny that brings us back to the days of the robber barons.
Under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, the US government can call a committee to thwart a planned labor strike for 60 days while it purports to investigate and mediate a contract dispute. In theory, state activism could compel capitalists to deal with the union in good faith, but the reality is that the people calling Washington in for back up are those representing private carriers, such as Jew Jonathan Gold of the National Retail Federation, a prominent voice lobbying the White House for intervention.
America’s railroad workers played an integral role in keeping shelves stocked and the country’s industry alive during the COVID pandemic, all while smooth handed investors and federal officials who refuse to acknowledge the plight of these men stayed home in their pajamas calling into ‘work” over Zoom.
If the government intervenes in this conflict, it must be on behalf of the dignity and rights of labor, not on behalf of big business. Nationalization should be on the table.
America is one of the only developed countries in the world to have privately owned railroads. Placing such essential infrastructure in the hands of speculators and short-sighted capitalists is a national security issue that threatens every aspect of our lives, not a question of economics.
Workers producing astronomical profits at the expense of their own mental and physical health deserve to reap their reward. If the bosses disagree, they have a right to their only veto: remind the bosses of the value of their labor by shutting the whole damned thing down.