Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
August 12, 2011

Note: Certain strange abbreviations and awkward formulations are necessary to comply with e-mail rules of some ISPs.

Post War
As we prepared to put this WIR to bed this morning we saw the
news that the US Postal Service is moving to eliminate 120,000 jobs–a fifth of the postal workforce–and to pull out of the Federal employee health care and retirement plans. This means breaking the recently negotiated concession contracts with postal worker unions. This reneging would require an act of Congress. Stay tuned.

Communication Failure
Since our last WIR 45,000 CWA and IBEW workers at Verizon East hit the bricks in a fight against the highly profitable telecom’s take-back demands on a wide range of benefits and working conditions. The company has secured injunctions in several states against effective mass picketing by strikers and supporters. This is going to be a rough one and these strikers deserve our support. You can learn more at the
Unity@Verizon site.

Sweet and Low
More than 600 locked out American Crystal Sugar workers and their supporters marched and rallied at sites in the twin towns of Fargo (ND)-Moorhead (MN) yesterday where the company is headquartered. The bosses replaced 1300 BCTGM workers with professional strikebreakers . Among leaders of other unions on hand to show support were Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO; Dave Kemnitz, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO; and Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, Minnesota’s largest union of public employees. You can check out the lockout website

Parallel Tracks To Rail Agreements–Part One
The Downsizing of Rail
In 1947, more than 1.5 mln 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 mln dollars for destroying what would take blns 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
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.

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.

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 merged 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, now part of the Teamsters Rail Division, 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%. There is no prospect of an electronic vote ever turning out other than how the UTU leadership wants it to turn out, at least until the time when there may be an internal opposition of sufficient clout to get an honest count.”

As it turns out, the UTU is doing a mail-in vote this time, with the ballots being mailed to members today. He continues about the 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 most other crafts have been less than enthusiastic about the UTU’s unilateral tentative agreement. With rail freight profits at all time highs, they reject paying for piddly token raises through health care cost shifting to their members. Some are projecting a far different strategy, tactics and goals in their bargaining with the carriers. Next time, in Part Two, we’ll look at positions being put forward by another major rail craft–the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, part of the Teamsters Rail Division.


There were lots of other important labor stories at home and abroad this past week–not to mention developments in the ongoing unjust wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya; climate change; the coming double-dip recession; bipartisan schemes to gut our entitlements. It’s more than you or me can handle in one column. While we no longer maintain the comprehensive Daily Labor News Digest I remind readers that we still feature a selection of top news stories Monday-Friday on the KC Labor home page and news about the environment and climate change on the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice page.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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