Hundreds of railroaders have contacted the WSWS with their thoughts on the ruling of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) and the possibility of a strike. Add your voice to theirs! Contact us by filling out the form at the end of this article. All comments will remain anonymous.
Since the release of the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations for a national contract for 100,000 American railroad workers, the railroad unions have been in full damage control mode.
The unions are trying to contain and suppress overwhelming opposition from members to the Biden-appointed board’s proposals for a five-year deal, which include below-inflation wage increases, removal of caps on individual health care contributions and no change to the punitive care policies that have driven tens of thousands of people out of the industry.
Support is growing for a national strike that could legally start as soon as September 15. One railroad worker wrote to the WSWS: “The unions are a joke, and through the PEB, the Democratic majority in Congress and the president have insulted the workers after winning office in the last election on the union vote.”
He concluded: “What is needed is a strike by all railway workers. Carriers can’t hire anyone now, who will stay? Carriers are already hurting America by not moving cargo because they don’t have the crews. Compensation for the sacrifice and work that the workforce does is a travesty, as evidenced by failures in hiring. The PEB recommendation is even more of a travesty. STRIKE.’
Another wrote: “These greedy bastards are living large while we are missing out on special days with our families and sacrificing our comfort to make this railroad run with no days off and no sleep. There is a special place in hell for people like that. We deserve a nice raise and more, much more. To hell with them, let’s shut them down!”
Such a strike, or even the preparations for one, would quickly turn into a standoff between the railroad workers and Congress, which would almost certainly step in to try to block it. The Biden administration, the self-styled ‘most pro-union president in American history’, has made preventing supply chain work stoppages one of its top national priorities, which it has been carrying out with the help of the pro-corporate union bureaucracy.
Since the last contract expired nearly three years ago, railway unions have played the role of enforcers and publicists for government interventions under the anti-worker Railway Labor Law, which nearly blocked strike action through endless rounds of mediation. Mandatory and endless ‘cool down’. periods of inactivity.
Unions worked to block the strike, aggressively enforcing injunctions and even campaigned for the appointment of a PEB, claiming that Biden’s intervention would be that of a neutral arbitrator. However, now that the PEB report has been published, the unions are desperate to find some way of overcoming the railmen’s opposition and reaching an agreement in line with the board’s recommendations.
The Brotherhood Of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen has not even issued an official response to the PEB ruling, almost two weeks after the fact. However, it has been posting a series of self-serving ‘myths versus facts’ charts about the ruling on its Facebook page, regurgitating corporate talking points under the guise of ‘objectivity’.
For example, one chart describes as a ‘myth’ the statement, ‘24% of GWIs compounded over 5 years is weak’. In response, the BLET writes: “Factually speaking, the PEB recommendation would provide the highest percentage of wage increases we have seen in over 47 years.” This “fact” downplays the reality that the deal will not keep pace with inflation, which is also the highest in four decades. It is excerpted virtually word for word from the PEB press release issued by the industry group the Association of American Railroads, a statement that is repeated endlessly in the corporate press.
In the same graph, the BLET also states as a “myth” that these wage increases “are nowhere near inflation.” In fact, the BLET responds, the salary increases, which are retroactive to 2020, keep pace with inflation in 2020. The salary increases for 2021 and 2022, the BLET admits, are ‘slightly below’ inflation for those years. .
It then adds: “The PEB also notes that its recommendations for 2023 and 2024 are ‘slightly higher than projected amounts of inflation’” for those years. In reality, the wage increases for those years are 4 and 4.5 percent, respectively. The “projections,” in other words, assume that inflation will rapidly halve in the coming months. This is not just a self-serving guess, it is also possible that inflation will rise over the same period, given the incredibly volatile economic environment. In any case, without cost-of-living adjustments included in the proposal, workers would be at the mercy of the ebb and flow of consumer prices.
Other so-called ‘myths’ cited by the BLET include: ‘The PEB didn’t give the unions anything we wanted!’, ‘The PEB essentially did nothing to address our quality of life!’ and, most revealingly, “The terms of the PEB are final and binding! It’s time to go on strike!”
Significantly, the BLET disabled comments for these posts. However, workers expressed their anger and frustration with the graphics in a popular railway Facebook group. One worker said: “Notice they disabled comments on the original post! SOLD OUT WORSHIPERS OF POLITICIANS AND LOVERS OF BOSSES!!! Take control of your hostels, branches and offices. Accuse these enemies of democracy. Do whatever it takes to save your lives and your jobs! It’s 1877 again!” –in reference to the Great Railroad Strike, the first major national strike in United States history.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU), another railway union involved in national negotiations, sent an open letter to the president of another union in the national bargaining coalition, which read: “Over the last few days, the BRC/TCU/IAM has In fact we are aware of several possible tentative agreements that would implement the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) 250 on the freight railroads.” These proposals, however, have not been made public to members. The TWU stated in the letter that it was “strongly opposed to submitting them to members for ratification”, and indicated that it intended to block these proposals. The card indicates that there may be serious divisions within the bureaucracy itself over the best way to proceed.
However, the solution offered by the TWU is not to prepare for the strike, but to “continue negotiations: “Signing any tentative agreement now, while continuing to believe that rational and reasonable additions can be made, would be irresponsible,” the letter says.
In other words, the TWU, which describes itself on its letterhead as “America’s Fighting Democratic Union,” proposes instead that the unions bide their time and load the contract with enough fig leaves to push it beyond Workers. It should be noted that TWU has pushed through one concession contract after another in the New York subway, its largest venue by far, keeping subway workers on the job even as dozens died of COVID.
The most insidious response, however, comes from the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD). In recent days, SMART-TD sent out a ‘random’ electronic survey to members, which it claims is ‘100 percent confidential’, asking them which popular independently run Facebook groups they frequent. These groups serve as relatively open forms of discussion, largely free from the control of the union apparatus, and have been a thorn in the bureaucracy’s side for years.
(Originally published in English on August 26, 2022)