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To Support All Working Americans, We Must Support Railroad Workers

Original illustration by Naya Chang

In the early hours of September 15, 2022, the Biden administration closed a tentative deal between union negotiators and railroad companies to avoid a work stoppage that threatened to hamstring America’s already-fragile supply chain. Railroad workers face punishing work conditions, including insufficient wages, workplace safety issues, and, most notably, an attendance system that affords them virtually no time off, even going so far as to functionally punish workers for taking sick days. The negotiations affect 115,000 workers, many of whom are dissatisfied with the ongoing negotiation processes; on October 10th, the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Ways Employees, America’s third-largest rail union, voted against the deal its leadership agreed to in September. Workers associated with the International Association of Machinists have already authorized a strike, rejecting the Biden deal. The deal still faces possible opposition among union members, who could conceivably vote against the deal and strike anyway. Though the economic consequences of a work stoppage would be severe, these possible consequences are secondary to the importance of labor exerting its power. Anyone interested in protecting the rights of workers and in preserving a democratic society should unequivocally support the right of railroad workers to strike. In the act of striking, the working class exercises the right to push back against its oppressors, providing a vital force through which the people can resist not only unfair working conditions but also any and all undemocratic actions by the government.

While the legal history surrounding railroad workers and striking is complex, workers should be undeterred by anti-labor measures pushed by the interest of capital. The right to organize in trade unions and to strike is a foundational legal principle of the past century. In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NLRB in the case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, upholding the fundamental right of workers who affect interstate commerce to unionize; railroad workers undeniably fall into that category. If today’s rail workers were to strike, they would join a rich tradition of labor action by American railroad workers. In 1877, following an announcement of pay cuts by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad–which would decrease wages for underpaid workers who faced dangerous working conditions–railroad workers in West Virginia went on strike. The strike spread across the nation, with more than 100,000 workers joining in. Rather than negotiating or making substantial concessions, management used militias to brutalize workers, often with the support of state and local governments and even federal troops. Large numbers of strikers were killed or arrested, and the strike did little to improve the material conditions of rail workers. Another pivotal labor action followed nearly two decades later when workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in 1894, with members of the American Railway Union severely disrupting national railway service. The strike was crushed when a federal injunction using the Sherman Antitrust Act—a piece of legislation supposedly meant to help prevent the creation of monopolies—ruled the ARU’s actions unlawful; the deployment of federal troops to Chicago quashed what was left of the strike. Though the Pullman strike represented another defeat for labor, unions kept growing at the turn of the century, and champions of labor like Eugene V. Debs began to rise to prominence. In 1922, yet another large-scale railroad strike resulted in victories for management. The Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926, has since effectively given the federal government the power to intervene in labor disputes involving railroads to prevent strikes from taking place. Both the U.S. government and court system have historically emphasized efforts to prevent work stoppages by railroad workers from taking place, often resulting in outcomes that overwhelmingly favor management. Nevertheless, rail workers today should not be dissuaded by such precedent. The act of striking is, fundamentally, an act of resistance by the workers against the interests of capital; to claim that workers should be constrained by the rules set forth by the very interests oppressing them is entirely contrary to what it means for labor to exert its power. By challenging their working conditions, workers and unions have the capacity to push back against the system more broadly, sending the message to anyone who may try to oppress them that labor is itself a political force capable of enacting change at a national level. 

The conditions railroad workers are facing further justify a possible strike. Many of the conditions workers desire to change are recent developments. Much of the responsibility can be placed on the recently-developed concept of “precision scheduled railroading,” which Railroad Workers United member and train engineer Ross Grooters described in an interview with Jacobin: “The ‘precision’ is just: how precisely can we cut the business, and in particular labor, to the bone and have it still function? And railroads cut way too deep.” According to Grooters, the size of trains has increased, and break times and other safety measures have been drawn back, all while huge numbers of union workers have been lost to layoffs or attrition. Railroad workers work lengthy shifts and are often on-call at all times—workers could, at any given time, be called in for a days-long shift that can take them halfway across the country. Sick days are unpaid and can be held against workers, an issue that is at the heart of the current dispute. Time off is virtually nonexistent; Grooters noted that he only has “four weeks’ vacation and eleven personal days” a year in a job without weekends. Railroad workers are indispensable in the operation of all facets of American society. For them to be given higher wages, safer working conditions, and actual paid time off should be the bare minimum. The possible consequences of a work stoppage demonstrate just how much railroad workers are worth. If they are continually underpaid and exploited, it is their prerogative to strike until their demands are met. And if workers are capable of exerting their collective power to improve their working conditions, they are capable of harnessing their collective power to challenge other inequities the interests of capital may try to force upon them. 

The current labor dispute comes at a pivotal moment for the U.S. labor movement. An August poll from Gallup showed that 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, a threshold that was last reached in 1965. Recent successful unionization votes at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks have brought labor issues to the center of national discourse. Labor leaders like Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls have become national figures. While corporate profits continue to skyrocket, wages in the U.S. remain largely stagnant. Unions are a vital force in the face of an American economy that benefits the interests of capital by exploiting the working class. Furthermore, with a Republican party that ekes ever closer to fascism and a Democratic party that seems largely content with the status quo, unions can provide the American working class with a concrete, non-electoral method of applying pressure in the face of reactionary governments that do not work in the interest of the people. With inflation above 8 percent and many Americans believing the economy is already in a recession and even more changing their habits to prepare for one, the effects of a railroad strike would be dramatic. Ultimately, however, these drastic effects would make a strike all the more justified — railroad workers can prove definitively just how crucial they are towards the operation of the United States as a whole. Regardless of whether or not they decide to strike, railroad workers unquestionably deserve to have their demands for increased wages, improved working conditions, paid time off, and more met by their employers. From the rest of us, they deserve the unequivocal support of any American interested in improving the material conditions of the working class.