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Which Track For Rail Labor?
Partnership Or Class Struggle?

by Bill Onasch

Parts of the first section of this article appeared in the August 12 Week In Review

The Downsizing of Rail
In 1947, more than 1.5 million worked for U.S. railroads. Currently carriers affiliated to the American Association of Railroads employ about ten percent of that figure. Some of this contraction is due to shifts to other transportation modes. Inter-city passenger rail service came close to completely disappearing as, from the Sixties on, both air travel and personal car use of the Interstate Highway system mushroomed. The restructuring of meat packing led to the demise of livestock trains. UPS and FedEx captured and greatly expanded deliveries once made by the combination of rail and Railway Express Agency.

In many cases the rail bosses were happy to rid themselves of these lost markets in order to concentrate on more profitable opportunities. For the once mighty PennCentral this meant prized prime real estate holdings in New York City and elsewhere. In addition to establishing Amtrak to maintain a core of passenger service, the Feds had to take over Penn Central’s neglected freight operations through the creation of Conrail.

More recently, the carriers have also realized economies–sometimes false economies–of scale through a series of mega-mergers that have left the industry dominated by a handful of corporations.

But most downsizing in North American rail is the result of technological change. These innovations have not brought advances in rail service such as those in Germany, France, and Japan in the postwar period. In fact there were some major backward steps.

Diesel was not the only alternative to steam. Electrification is far superior in almost every aspect and continues to be used extensively for passenger traffic in the dense Northeast Corridor and local commuter service in many cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. The Milwaukee Road had even made a considerable capital investment to electrify their West freight main line through the high mountains of Montana and Idaho in 1914. Using cheap–and low carbon footprint--hydroelectric power, it greatly speeded up service. But in 1973, on the eve of the first great Oil Crisis, the scavengers who had gained control of the Milwaukee decided to take advantage of high copper prices at the time–and scrapped their electrified lines in the mountains. They received ten million dollars for destroying what would take billions to rebuild today.

The carriers’ introduction of technology has been solely focused on boosting profitability from a shrunken but highly productive workforce concentrated on narrow segments of transportation. Though slower than most industries to apply new methods, once started the rail bosses moved ruthlessly.

Since the 1947 benchmark, there has been not only the completion of conversion from steam to diesel electric power. Telegraph operators providing train orders to engineers and conductors as they rolled by faded away as radio communication with the trains was gradually established . With the growth of Centralized Traffic Control and Automatic Block Signals all dispatching became consolidated in one national center. Computer bar codes on rolling stock, and closed circuit television in switching yards, eliminated most yard clerks. The Flashing Rear End Device (FRED) that took the spot of the iconic caboose meant no one was any longer working the back of trains. Train crew size steadily declines toward the carrier’s dream goal of complete remote control. Along with technology improvements in track laying/maintenance, in the service/repair shops, and in the giant hump yards, there have also been moves to contract out work.

Rail Labor
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Rail unions were the foundation blocks for a national labor movement in the USA. A
2002 article in the UE News says,

“The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the first major strike in an industry that propelled America’s industrial revolution. It was the first national strike, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific. In some cities, especially St. Louis, the struggle became one of the nation’s first general strikes. This was the first major strike broken by the U.S. military. Probably in no other strike had so many working people met a violent death at the hands of the authorities.”

The St Louis strike referred to led to the creation of the St Louis Commune–an attempt to emulate the famous Paris Commune of a few years earlier--under the leadership of the St Louis Workingmen’s Party. They were, in fact, the local government for about a week until 3,000 U.S. Army troops arrived on the scene. Few current residents know the city’s annual Veiled Prophet Parade and Veiled Prophet Ball originated as celebrations by the local ruling class of their victory over the Commune. The uprising in St Louis also sparked the establishment of National Guard Armories in nearly every city and town.

Eugene V Debs
1877 was not to be the last instance of a President ordering the Army out to break a rail stoppage. The Pullman Strike of 1894, a national solidarity shutdown organized by the short-lived American Railway Union uniting various crafts, was broken by 12,000 troops. Its central leader,
Eugene V Debs, was sentenced to jail for six months for violating a back-to-work injunction. Debs had been a Democrat member of the Indiana legislature. Outraged by Democrat Grover Cleveland’s strikebreaking, Debs started listening to socialists sharing his accommodation at the Woodstock prison. Debs went on to become the most famous and influential American socialist.

Railroads are not covered under the Taft-Hartley Act that governs unions in most of the private sector. Since 1926 they are under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act. (Airlines were included in the RLA in 1936.) There is a National Mediation Board (NMB) that has far greater scope than the NLRB. Strikes over “minor” issues, such as grievances, are essentially forbidden and must be pursued through the NMB process. Strikes over contract modification are not outlawed but there are numerous steps that must be exhausted before the NMB “releases” a union to strike. As a last resort Congress can impose a settlement. In practice, there have been few major national rail strikes of any significant duration.

Worms For the Early Bird
Rail labor began as a collection of sometimes competing craft unions. Mergers and craft extinction have reduced their number but fragmentation remains today. At times the various unions have partnered in negotiations to try to avoid carrier attempts to find the weakest link. But in this year’s bargaining two very divergent approaches have emerged and one union is trying to sell an Early Bird Special that the carriers hope will establish a pattern that can be imposed on others.

The United Transportation Union represents the majority of those working on trains. (The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, now part of the Teamsters Rail Conference, bargains for the rest.) An old friend who is a long-time UTU activist, recently sent me these comments by e-mail,

“After finally winning the right of the rank and file to vote on national agreements circa 1990 the UTU members voted down the next several national agreements but got them anyway, through Congressional action... In 2002, with the worst national agreement in living memory, the UTU instituted electronic voting (via telephone) and the agreement was reported to be endorsed by 80%.”

He continues about the current deal,

“It alleges a 17% wage increase, which is really a 14% increase over five years, and most of the increase will be paid for, not out of railroad profits, but by shifting the burden of health care even more disproportionately to the sick and disabled. None of this is apparent to the UTU membership however, who are grateful for what appears to be a substantial increase in wages in a time of economic hardship.”

Considering that many other industry contracts in this period have offered only lump sums in lieu of wage increases–if not actual wage cuts–it’s understandable many UTU members feel relieved about the prospect of an “early” settlement that includes a raise.

But other crafts have been less than enthusiastic about the UTU’s unilateral tentative agreement. One projects a far different strategy, tactics and goals in their bargaining with the carriers–and more.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees membership mostly repairs and maintains tracks and bridges. The national union went through some tumultuous times over the past couple of decades. A reform leadership signed on as one of the founding unions of the Labor Party. Later they got caught up in the merger mania within rail labor, first going through a rough courtship with the Boilermakers and then ultimately winding up as a Division of the Teamsters Rail Conference.

Their response to the UTU deal was swift and blunt. In June they said,

“On June 2nd, the UTU released the terms of its tentative deal with the freight railroads. The railroads are calling that agreement the ‘pattern’ for the industry. We believe that agreement is a pattern for economic disaster that exposes the members we are charged to protect with the prospect of crippling healthcare costs when they are sick and often unable to work. At a time when the freight railroads are recording all-time record profits, the UTU agreed with the railroads to shift the cost of getting sick onto those who need protection the most.”

The BMWED took the unusual step of appealing to the UTU ranks, alerting them to the ramifications of the health insurance concessions and urging them to reject. Whether internal opposition in the UTU will be sufficient to turn down the deal is unknown as this is written. If it passes it will make bargaining tougher for BMWED and other crafts.

Whether or not the UTU deal passes, there are important preparations for a militant struggle, both against the carriers and the boss politicians, under way within the BMWED. A pillar of class struggle unionism throughout all of the turmoil in the union over the years is its Pennsylvania Federation, made up of 56 Local Lodges in fourteen Northeastern states, representing both freight and Amtrak workers.

Jed Dodd
In his General Chairman’s report to the Pennsylvania Federation’s convention, Jed Dodd clearly demonstrated the heritage of Debs lives on in rail labor,

“Ultimately, all struggle boils down to a war of ideas. In a capitalist society, these ideas revolve around either promoting the working class, or the ruling class. In our present economic system, the interests of both classes can not be promoted simultaneously and the best that can be accomplished are short periods of compromise, otherwise called union contracts or legislation like medicare, social security, head start, free public education, railroad retirement, food stamps and so forth. The bosses, whose class has triumphed these last forty years, have learned this lesson about ideas well.”

While taking justifiable pride in the fact that BMWED workers have continued to do relatively well in tough economic times Dodd also frankly reviewed the overall dismal state of the broader labor and social movements reeling from the most serious ruling class offensive against them in living memory. But his honest appraisal is not one of despair. He offers hope,

“When workers link the fact that our movement for collective bargaining justice is the same as, and can not be separated from, the movements for peace, equality, the rights of immigrants, a clean environment and equal access to basic needs like education, housing, jobs and health care, then we can build a social movement capable of pushing back these corporate attacks.

“When these movements come together with a willingness to break unjust laws on a massive scale, threaten the production of energy, basic industry and transportation, upon which corporate power depends, and demand rules that protect workers and not corporations then we will have a chance to build a just society for all.”

This perspective is in sharp contrast to the dominant philosophy of mainstream union officials in this country who, while promoting the need for give-backs. seek to be partners with the boss and those “friends” they helped elect to political power. In this conflict of ideas within the labor movement, the BMWED has the better ones.

However, the Book of Proverbs warns us “hope deferred maketh the heart grow sick.” The best ideas for a hopeful future can lead to cynicism and demoralization if not applied in action. Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina this past May, BMWED national and system leaders moved to kickstart some timely action with a resolution entitled Stop the War on Workers, Effectively Engage the Class Struggle In the Streets and at the Point of Production. Dodd explains,

“This resolution asks that the Local Lodges meet in special meetings and have their members vote by secret ballot to permit political strikes on the railroad in the event the government cuts Medicare, Social Security, Railroad Retirement, or further strips workers of collective bargaining rights. Political strikes are an effective necessity to counter the assault currently taking place on the American people.”

If Not Reachable, At Least Teachable
Steve Early recently wrote a brief article,
Verizon Strike: A Teachable Moment?, where he urges unions to revive agitation for single-payer “Medicare For All”,

“As long as medical coverage is still job based, employers will have a dominant role in determining its cost, scope, and very existence. Workers will risk losing access to their existing coverage any time they are laid off, change jobs, or go on strike—to maintain affordable health care! The fight to change that flawed system is far from over which is why every strike should be used for union membership and public education about the better way forward, for all workers, whether unionized or not.”

Early’s perceptive restatement of this need is more relevant than ever. But it’s logic has been mostly ignored by the movers and shakers guiding our unions. In 2005 the UAW leadership accepted GM’s argument that their member’s health care plan was just too good and agreed to modify an existing contract to divert a dollar an hour in wages to health and to start charging premiums for retiree plans for the first time. This set off a cascade of union agreed cost-shifting, in both private and public sectors, with such recent examples as highly profitable General Electric–and the tentative UTU deal now being considered by the ranks.

The BMWED is utilizing Steve’s teachable moment on health care–Dodd is a member of the national steering committee of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer--around the current rail negotiations–and a whole lot more. Currently the White House and bipartisan congressional leaders are plotting how to slash, if not eliminate, present inadequate Medicare For Some--along with Social Security and just about everything else of any value that we won in struggle over the years. Going beyond the routine e-mails of outrage, they are reviving the teaching of class struggle methods in the workplace and streets–where our potential power can prevail.

1936-37 Flint Sit-Down Strike At General Motors
But is the teachable moment also a reachable moment? Are we on the verge of a new labor upsurge that can effectively defend past gains and acquire new ones? If you were to simply look at the mainstream labor leadership you’d conclude–fat chance. But past key turning points in American class struggle–such as the 1934 semi-insurrectionary strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, and the Flint sit-down strikes–were unexpected by bosses and labor pundits alike.

Nor do we have to go back to the Great Depression for encouraging examples of unanticipated worker mobilizations. Who can forget the example of Madison earlier this year when embattled public sector workers attracted truly massive support from not only other unionists but many students and unorganized workers eager to support somebody finally fighting back?

While the struggle was raging in Madison–and on smaller but impressive scale in several other state capitals–the We Are One events delivered another shock. I wrote at the time in our Week In Review,

“The We Are One events yesterday were a unique innovation that found resonance in every state and solidarity actions in several other countries. In some workplaces there were brief work stoppages. In others all workers wore their union t-shirts to visibly demonstrate they were One. Most towns of any size had at least one street action where all–union or not–could participate. It’s impossible to get a precise count of those taking part in some kind of coordinated activity. A march and rally in St Paul attracted several thousand. Most were more modest than that but collectively it seems certain that hundreds of thousands plugged in to We Are One in some way....The Internet was a big help in organizing events–especially in the communities–but most bodies were turned out by unions that have rediscovered they have the capacity to mobilize their members when they can motivate them for something worth while.”

Those hundreds of thousands who were inspired by their experience in April are still out there. Unfortunately, much momentum was lost through diversions such as the legislative recall effort in Wisconsin. In states governed by “friends,” such as New York and Connecticut, major give-backs were swallowed without much of a fight. On top of everything, the President who finessed the devastating deficit deal has been invited as an honored guest to the Labor Day Rally in Detroit.

Whether the BMWED, and a few other fired-up unions such as National Nurses United, can rejuvenate the spirit of Madison/We Are One and spread it even wider, is far from certain in the short term. But it’s not excluded. While avoiding foolish adventures, it’s necessary to probe the possibility of advancing wider class battles.

If nothing else, the BMWED stance has made a significant contribution in the contest of ideas. For that reason, I view current rail bargaining as more important than the “ahead of schedule” UAW negotiations with the Big Three or the already done deal at General Electric.

August 31, 2011

About the Author
The webmaster of the website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.

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