The Railroad Rank and File Committee is holding its fourth public meeting this Sunday, October 30 at 7 p.m. EST. “The unions say they will not ‘sanction’ a strike. This decision belongs to the workers, not to the bureaucracy! Register for the event here.
On Wednesday, railroad flaggers became the third of 12 trades in the U.S. railroad industry to vote against a nationwide contract brokered by the Biden administration and union negotiators, which sought to prevent a nationwide strike while failing to meet any of the demands workers.
The deal is now on the verge of a humiliating collapse. White House officials, after reaching a deal with a few dozen union bureaucrats behind closed doors last month, assumed everything was settled. But they weren’t counting on one thing: 120,000 railway workers, determined to fight for what they deserve. On Monday, voting is due to begin for 60,000 engineers and conductors. The signalmen’s vote creates momentum for these contracts to be rejected as well.
Railway workers, who voted almost unanimously earlier this year to authorize the strike, are pushing for a national strike. It would be the most powerful strike movement in decades in the United States. This would result in the immediate closure of 40% of the country’s freight capacity. More importantly, it would encourage workers in other industries — including at West Coast docks, where dockworkers are kept on the job by the union and the White House without a contract — to press for their own demands. This would demonstrate to workers everywhere that they can stand up to corporations, corrupt union bureaucracy and even government.
Corporate America has now jumped into the ring in response to issue marching orders to all parties involved. On Thursday, more than 300 business groups released an open letter calling on the Biden administration to intervene to prevent a strike. “It is paramount that these contracts be ratified now,” the letter states, “because a rail closure would have a significant impact on the U.S. economy and lead to further inflationary pressures.”
The letter continues: “Because the White House played such a central role in the process [which led to the contract], we believe this can be helpful in continuing to move the process forward in a positive direction. Otherwise, Congress will be called upon to act.
In this letter, virtually every American company speaks with one voice, from the United States Chamber of Commerce to the Ohio Soybean Association. Despite an unprecedented political crisis in Washington and the violent atmosphere between the two parties, the ruling class is pulling itself together against the threat from below of the working class.
The fact that the fundamental dividing line in society is class, not race, gender or any other category of personal identity, is forced to the surface by the growing movement of the working class itself.
The warning about the impact of a strike on “the economy” is dripping with hypocrisy. He comes from a class of economic arsonists who, through Washington’s monetary policies, deliberately engineer a recession in order to use unemployment as a weapon against demands for higher wages. No such concern for “the economy” has ever been raised regarding the disastrous social cost of NATO’s unpopular war in Ukraine, which has contributed to soaring energy prices.
The solution to this problem, in any case, is simple: accept workers’ reasonable demands, including paid sick leave, cost-of-living adjustments and an end to the brutal attendance policies that have driven dozens of thousands of people in the industry. But even though railroads are America’s most profitable industry, they refuse to even consider it.
The letter’s demand that Biden intervene to ensure the contract “is ratified” — that is, with or without the workers’ consent — is the attitude of a corporate dictatorship. The workers, as far as the signatories are concerned, not only do not have the right to strike, but they do not even have the right to decide on their own contracts. If workers don’t vote the right way, then the White House or Congress will step in to impose the “right” decision. “Enough of this worker interference,” the letter said, in effect. “Our profits are at stake!”
The Biden administration tried to impose the contracts through the pro-corporate labor bureaucracy, which worked continuously to sabotage workers’ strength and undermine their initiative. Through endless extensions of strike deadlines, delays until after midterms in order to strengthen the hand of Congress to intervene, and even through outright voter fraud, the Biden administration is attempting, through the union apparatus, to impose a de facto ban on strikes.
But the workers are increasingly fed up, and the apparatus finds itself discredited and isolated. This was the origin of Wednesday’s letter from BMWED Chairman Tony Cardwell, which attacked “fringe groups” advocating “unauthorized illegal strikes”. In fact, a strike at this stage would not be illegal. It would be “unsanctioned,” moreover, only because Cardwell and other union officials would refuse to sanction him.
The immediate target of the letter was the Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee, a group of railroad workers organizing to fight betrayals and put workers in control. But, in reality, Cardwell was attacking the overwhelming sentiment of strike action, which the workers have repeatedly “sanctioned”.
Meanwhile, Cardwell admitted in the letter to a secret agreement with the carriers to extend the status quo if the workers rejected the BMWED contract (which they did two weeks ago). According to Cardwell, workers who demand that the will of the overwhelming majority be respected are “marginal”, while union officials who act in defiance of the will of workers are not. There is no reason to expect a similar angry letter from Cardwell over US business demands for more direct state intervention to ensure contracts “get ratified”.
The RWRFC issued a response to Cardwell on Thursday evening. “What gives you the right to claim exclusive power to ‘sanction’ a strike?” asked the committee. “It’s not up to you and your fellow bureaucrats to bypass us and tell us what to do.” He concluded: “On behalf of our 120,000 employees, we give you the following instructions: If you are not prepared to respect the will of the members, then step aside. ”
In 1937, Leon Trotsky observed that the character of a trade union “is determined by its relation to the distribution of the national income”. Should the union apparatus “defend the incomes of the bourgeoisie against the attacks of the workers; if they fought against strikes, against higher wages, against helping the unemployed, he said, then we would have a strike-breaking organization, not a union.
This definition, which even the most conservative unions of Trotsky’s day generally fell short of, fully describes the activities of bureaucratically controlled unions today. They deliberately work on behalf of the corporate elite against the workers they claim to represent.
But as the worst economic and social crisis in generations pushes the working class into struggle, the authority of the apparatus crumbles. Even as railroad workers send contracts to the trash, strong support is growing in the auto industry for Will Lehman, an autoworker running for president of the United Auto Workers on a platform of abolition of bureaucracy and transfer of power to the base.
All over the world, a strike movement is emerging, which is turning into an open political conflict with capitalist governments. Strikes in Britain by railway and dockworkers were a major factor in the downfall of Prime Minister Liz Truss after just six weeks. In France, a nationwide refinery strike and mass solidarity actions involving hundreds of thousands of workers have been met with savage police repression by multi-millionaire President Emmanuel Macron. Earlier, mass protests against runaway price hikes in the island country of Sri Lanka forced its president to resign and flee the country.
Workers should take Thursday’s letter as a warning. If the unions cannot be relied upon to deal with grassroots opposition, then the corporate oligarchy is ready to bolster it with more overt and naked forms of state repression. Indeed, the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case that would dramatically expand the ability of companies to sue for economic “damages” caused by strikes.
The whole experience contains a certain number of fundamental lessons, for the railwaymen and for the working class as a whole.
First, workers’ opposition can only find organized expression through the creation of grassroots organizations, including factory and workplace committees, to mobilize workers independently and against the union apparatus, unifying all sections of the working class in a common struggle.
Second, it places workers in a political struggle against the entire corporate network of government, business and union bureaucrats. In the case of the railroad workers, the role of the state as an instrument of class domination is revealed directly, in the form of threats of intervention by Congress (Democrats and Republicans alike) and the White House in the negotiation of the concession contract. But this is the fundamental nature of the state itself – not a neutral body, but the arm of a corporate dictatorship.
Third, the united intervention of all of corporate America against the railroad workers exposes the fundamental problem: as long as economic and therefore political power remains in the hands of the capitalist ruling elite, the interests of the working class cannot be guaranteed.
The logic of the class struggle raises the need for the working class to seize power itself and to restructure economic life on the basis of social needs, not private profit, notably through the transformation of the railways and other major utilities industries. This is the program of socialism.