Thanks to Biden's intervention, the leading U.S. railroad companies signed a tentative agreement with the unions to "avoid a possible strike" that would have paralyzed almost 30% of U.S. freight shipments and which, according to the media, would have further fueled inflation and cost up to $2 billion a day.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans welcomed the President's intervention to reach an agreement that was mutually beneficial for both parties. The alternative, Biden himself asserted, would have been a serious disruption of supply chains and would have precipitated a new economic crisis.
A practically militarized sector since the First World War
New York, rally in support of the railroad strike of 1877
Since the great railroad strike of 1877, the courts and the state worked to pass laws specifically designed to quell possible new railroad strikes.
The Erdman Act of 1898, enacted shortly after the Pullman strike, is significant because it represented an early attempt by the federal government to prevent strikes by regularizing the status of unions and union membership. Under the law, railroad companies could no longer require, as a condition of employment, that a worker not join a union. Nor could workers be dismissed during the arbitration process. However, in exchange, workers were also prevented from striking during the process.
A labor dispute under the law could be mediated by the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Commissioner of Labor, or it could be arbitrated by a three-member board: one chosen by the employers, one by the union, and a third agreed upon by both. If a third member could not be agreed upon, the government would intervene.
During the first World War, the railroads were nationalized and railroad workers' wages were raised in order to meet wartime demands and simultaneously suppress the strikes occurring in the country in 1917. [3,000 strikes were recorded in the first six months of 1917](https://books.google.es/books? id=xmVsBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA195&dq=nationalization+of+railroad+wage+increase+1918+inflation&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiMrtDqhq36AhWTh_0HHU9XD1gQ6AF6BAgKEAI#v=onepage&q=nationalization%20of%20railroad%20wage%20increase%201918%20inflation&f=false) and the most affected industries were metallurgy, shipbuilding, coal mining, textiles, lumber, apparel and... railroads.
Following the end of the war, the government enacted the Transportation Act of 1920 which restored private sector control of the railroads. The act also established the Railroad Labor Board, consisting of nine members appointed by the President, three representing labor, three representing carriers, and the last three representing the citizenship at large, whatever that meant.
In 1921 the economic crisis led this Board to authorize wage reductions, thus provoking the Railway Strike of 1922. Moreover, for the unions, the existence of the Railroad Labor Board was dangerous because it was constantly being defied by the workers and therefore undermined union influence in the resolution of conflicts.
The Railway Labor Act of 1926 (Railway Labor Act of 1926), therefore, was the product of negotiations between the major railroad companies and the unions. Like the laws that preceded it, the 1926 act concedes and protects the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain as a way of preventing them from striking. But it also incorporated some important changes.
It eliminated the Railroad Labor Board and classified labor disputes as minor or major. Workers cannot strike over a major dispute, a category which includes wage bargaining, unless they have exhausted the interminable negotiation and mediation procedures. If the labor dispute is minor, i.e., if the employer's action complained of is possibly justified by the collective bargaining agreement, the workers have no right to strike. The courts therefore have the right to prohibit all such strikes by classifying them as illegitimate.
The law created a mediation board which, rather than having the power to authorize changes in working conditions, could only make recommendations and resort to convening an Emergency Presidential Board in the event that no agreement could be reached.
That is, rather than merely authorizing inferior working conditions, the new legislation intended to achieve the same outcome by extending the bargaining period and thus hamper workers' ability to fight back and demoralize them to the point where they end up accepting the changes imposed on them.
In the event that the proposed agreements remained under dispute, the unions could simply send the contract to binding arbitration and wait for the arbitrator to approve the agreement or Congress could impose it by force by turning to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
Summarizing: since the first World War and especially since the 1926 act, the railroads have been virtually militarized, and left with no real right to strike under the iron grip of unions and Congress.
Why are railroad workers mobilizing?
Wages have long lagged behind inflation while health insurance costs continue to grow, in part because the workforce of the largest and most profitable railroad companies, called Class I railroads, has been drastically reduced over the past few years.
These companies have been reducing manpower while maintaining the same functions and workload for years, which has led to the practice of forcing workers to carry out unfamiliar and dangerous routes.
Precision railroading, introduced during the 1990s, was implemented in 2019 on CSX railroads. Furthermore, BNSF railroad workers were subjected this year to a new organizational system called Hi-viz, which disciplines workers through a point system: they receive 30 at the beginning of the month and lose points for each day off they take. The severity of the punishment depends on whether they take a day off on a busy day. That said, they are given the option to recover four points if they work for 14 days in a row. After several months of implementing this system, some 2,000 workers ended up quitting.
But nothing changed, as the New York Times acknowledged yesterday, for workers, whether they were unionized or not.
They have little to no predictability in their schedules and are subjected to draconian attendance policies .
The court suppression in February of the strike attempts of the railroad workers, however, did not temper their discontent. The practice of BNSF, introduced years ago, of temporarily laying off employees in order to maintain a reserve of workers for when a surge in demand arises, did not go as planned in March, when 70% of these workers decided to quit rather than return from temporary unemployment.
How did it come to a strike on the brink?
It was the pent-up anger and direct pressure from the workers that led the union Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) to hold a vote on July 12 on whether or not to declare a strike. But the truth is that, in the meantime, the unions themselves were maneuvering for Biden to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board.
After 99.5% of the workers represented by the BLET union voted in favor of the strike, Biden did precisely what the unions and the Chamber of Commerce were asking him to do, i.e., announce an executive order to create the Board by including BLET, the Transportation Division of the SMART-TD and other unions in the negotiations.
However, the workers in August rejected the proposals of the Presidential Board, meaning that they could legally go on strike a month later. The law does not legally allow the strike until the end of a 30-day cooling off period.
Why did the workers reject what was cooked up between unions and companies?
Workers rejected proposals such as...maintaining the draconian assistance policies, eliminating caps on employee health insurance contributions, and annually increasing wages between 4% and 7% through 2024 (less than inflation), i.e. a reduction in real wages.
During the cooling off period, the unions rushed to reach a new agreement. An agreement that, as perceived by the workers, differed in no real way from that proposed by the emergency presidential board.
What did the unions do?
Biden unveils "new" union-business deal at White House to be imposed on railroad workers
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers resorted to a classic with their constituents: pure and simple voter fraud to get the agreement past the workers and end the negotiations. BLET and SMART-TD, instead opted to delay the vote on the agreement until mid-November.
The SMART-TD union published an open letter to workers in which they claim that the tentative agreement, which leaves everything unchanged and any possible improvements at the mercy of new negotiations, is the best decision.
Why did we not strike? It is not due to the RLA, but rather because of the commerce clause contained within the Constitution of the United States of America. The fact is, Congress would not risk any more harm to the supply chain than what the railroads have already committed since the advent of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR).
We were then faced with an ugly reality. We could refuse to negotiate any further and initiate the strike procedures, which, in turn, would have been blocked by Congress with the PEB imposed upon us, or we could come to a tentative agreement that then gives you a voice in these proceedings through a direct up or down vote.
Beyond empowering each and every member in the process, the agreement opens new ground and cracks open the door to attendance policies being negotiated at the table, instead of through unilateral edicts from the carriers.
The workers express their anger and not a few point out the need to break with the unions. Something that could also be seen in the creation of the rank-and-file committee of the railway workers last September. But there is also something else at work.
There now remains among the workers a widespread feeling of demoralization and impotence produced by a struggle put on hold for months in order to make it legal and finally defeated without ever breaking out, despite the best efforts of workers to express their voices through democratic union elections and ballots. And that is because union elections and referendums don't even need to be rigged to produce demoralization.
Contrary to what the unions say, the strike was not aborted by the Commerce Clause, but by the Railway Labor Act which the unions present as a conquest of the workers. This law, like all those involving unions and legal strikes, are designed to prevent strikes from occurring. The Commerce Clause is only a safety mechanism, a last resort.
What to do?
- The laws governing negotiation are not designed to avoid conflict, but to stifle it and defeat it before it erupts.
- The unions are organized in accordance with the law to follow their procedures. Expressing ourselves in trade unions, making our voices heard, will never change anything. If what the unions support doesn't match what the workers want, they will manipulate the votes or delay them until the disappointment allows them to secure a majority through attrition.
- To struggle is not to comply with infinite bureaucratic procedures designed to break up any struggle, nor to try to make ourselves heard in organizations created to silence us.
- We have to fight in a different way, by preparing strikes with organizational tools other than unions and organizing them when they break out by our own means, with sovereign assemblies of all workers and elected committees that are recallable and accountable to the assembly.