By Chris Townsend
December 12, 2022
The Biden regime’s shameful betrayal of the railroad workers unfolded in late November and early December as the possible railroad strike crisis slowly wound to its ending. The gang-up on the railroad workers and their desire to exercise the basic right to strike was practically all-encompassing. Politicians from both political parties – with only a handful of exceptions – all of the media, every single large corporation in the country, and even some liberals and so-called leftists all made the case why the strike must be stopped. Broken even before it had started. This chorus all echoed the same canard, that it was too important to allow a rail strike, no matter that it was in response to the refusal of the company barons to seriously negotiate in the first place. The lack of time off for the workers alone qualified as a serious human rights violation, but of course their human rights had to be sacrificed for the monstrous profits of the railroad companies. All those who supported this shameful act by Biden, all who try to minimize it or even support it, are to be blasted. Thoroughly blasted. This strike breaking is unforgivable. Period. To excuse or forgive or conveniently overlook it is to invite more of this conduct.
The struggle of the railroad workers will continue. It has to. They have no choice. Conditions have become intolerable for a majority of the workforce. The draconian attendance policies of the rail bosses that virtually ban time off for the large operating sections of the workforce, and the fact that most workers are sure to “fire themselves” under these outrageous personnel policies give them no choice to keep up the fight.
From these strikebreaking acts come down several lessons, among others. We need to learn them.
Biden Is a Fraud
A President claiming repeatedly to be “The most pro-union President in U.S. history.” quickly revealed himself as a cynical fraud, a cheap charlatan eager to win political favors for himself while knuckling under to the rail industry. This despite the fact that the rail union membership was pleading and praying not for a home-run union contract but something as simple as a few days off per year. For many in labor and on the left this comes as no surprise. Labor and left veterans have seen this many times before. It did seem, however, to come as a shock to many. Some new, some only now paying attention were taken by surprise at Biden’s gross anti-worker and anti-union acts. But it shouldn’t have. To claim to be the most pro-union President in the U.S. is of course a very low bar, and his repeated claims to this effect have certainly now been exploded by this inexcusable act. Biden is a fraud. If you had to learn that fact from this battle, then don’t forget it in the future for your own wellbeing. And whatever you do, don’t invite him to get involved in your next union contract negotiations unless you want to give your employer some heavy artillery to use against you and your members.
Biden Incapable of Confronting the Rail Companies
The big railroad companies won this fight, and the workers lost. For now, at least. And the record will reflect that throughout the entire long and drawn-out rail union negotiations fracas the Biden regime found itself unable – really unwilling – to publicly confront or denounce the outrageous conduct and policies of the rail corporations. Throughout the process the companies were nearly invisible, and even when they appeared briefly the rail bosses were treated politely, even deferentially by the Biden regime operatives. Not once did Biden or Secretary of Labor Walsh raise their voices to the corporations. That was reserved for the “disobedient children”, the union membership that just didn’t want to play along with the corporate program that was literally working them to death.
From the start of the Biden-Walsh involvement it was apparent that they were only interested in stopping the workers from striking. They had many, many alternatives to what they eventually did. Biden controls an enormous federal regulatory machinery that could have brought real pressure on the rail companies, but he refused to use it. He could have spoken out clearly on behalf of the workers against the rail outfits. He did not do that. The only role played by Biden and Walsh was to try to convince the workers to abandon their only tool to win justice – the strike. No discernable pressure was placed on the rail companies by Biden. So addled in fact is the Biden regime that a very valid case could be made that had Biden actually led the rail strike on the sick leave issue he would have emerged victorious in the eyes of a working class and middle class weary of the unending dictatorship of the employers. Biden’s claim that his strike-breaking acts were for everyone’s benefit neglected to point out that simultaneously his regime has been actively and eagerly consorting with the Federal Reserve bank to trigger a potentially crippling recession through massive increases in interest rates. Biden could likewise address that attack now falling on working people, but again his loyalty ends up ultimately being with the bosses, not the people. The entire country will be negatively affected or even devastated economically if the Biden recession kicks in. Again, his pro-union claim is exposed as a sham, as bogus.
Enormous Monopoly Concentration a Huge Factor
All the forces arrayed against the railroad workers claimed in one way or the other that a strike would be an apocalyptic calamity, so it had to be stopped. This was a dubious claim by itself, and they all conveniently ignored the fact that underlying the rail union situation – and holding a key to explaining much of it – is the near complete monopoly concentration of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. Over the past century the number of Class 1 railroads – the bigger railroads with the largest revenues and the power to dominate rail service in the regions they serve – has been allowed to concentrate through government-approved mergers from several hundred Class 1 railroads to merely 5 at present. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Class_I_railroads No other industry has seen this degree of corporate monopoly concentration. As a result, company profits have reached all-time highs, the rail workforce has been devasted and slashed continuously, safety has deteriorated, and service to shippers has become a mostly take-it-or-leave-it affair.
This mind-boggling monopoly concentration is the direct result of Congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House handing to the rail companies just about anything they have wanted for many decades, including certain regulatory approval for the disastrous and endless rail merger mania. With the monopoly process nearly complete and with only 5 remaining major railroads this makes all the more contemptible Biden’s unwillingness to confront them in defense of the workers. If ever a situation cried out for partisan and Presidential intervention on behalf of the workforce in a trustified industry this was it! Biden’s decision in the end was to join forces with the rail barons, and abandon the worked-to-near-death union members. There is no other way to see this, unless one is searching for some excuse to support such an anti-union course of conduct.
Rail Union “Leaders” Bear Much Responsibility
The bulk of the rail union leadership was angling and maneuvering from the start to avoid a strike. Most of them in the 12 rail unions have no stomach for a fight with the companies and are even more terrified at the thought of having to speak up to the Biden regime. There were some exceptions, but they were too few in number to impact the larger direction of the fight. In several of the unions their contract negotiations are also contracted-out to law firms and labor relations consultants who have no interest in a strike as it would negate their profitable role in the process. For a diagnosis of this situation I will direct everyone to a recent article by a rail union leader who lays out the situation better than I can: Rail Unions in the U.S. Are in Bad Need of Consolidation, Democracy, and Militancy. None of us can blame Biden or Walsh or any of the other politicians for the sad situation among the rail union leaderships, but to ignore them or fail to expose their real roles allows these “leaders” off the hook. One can only hope that new union forces will emerge to challenge this tragically failed set of rail union bigs.
Commanding Heights of the Economy
Those of us on the labor left had better take note of the fact that the rail industry is undeniably a part of the “commanding heights” of the economy. It is a lynch pin in the overall economic and political set up, which explains why the political elites moved so decisively to shut down any strike threat. This should be a roadmap for our overall work. It is important to relate to these workers, to encourage young class conscious workers, leftists and militants to seek employment in this industry, to conduct left agitation in this workforce, and to encourage organizations such as Railroad Workers United (RWU) Railroad Workers United who are laboring to challenge and correct the situation confronting the rail workers. The left and militant forces in this industry are small and scattered, a primary reason why the struggle to reject the contract and build towards strike fell short. The growth of RWU is to be supported in every way as they obviously hold the only hope for future progress on any of the current questions.
United Parcel Service (UPS) Battle Looms
The Biden regime has for the moment delivered a huge Christmas present to the rail industry – and big business generally – while doling out an historic defeat to all of organized labor and the working class. But the White House celebrating will be brief. Biden’s shameful actions now set the stage for an even larger showdown with labor when the gigantic UPS contract with the Teamsters Union comes to a head next year on July 31. Many of the worker issues are the same, wide layers of Teamster rank-and-file and even union leadership have been patiently preparing for a major showdown battle, and the same corporate forces will be expecting Biden and Walsh to likewise hand over a win when the 25th hour arrives. Two of the largest rail unions are a part of the Teamsters union and more than 300,000 UPS workers are Teamsters. In a coming fight more than three times as large and in another key section of the economy we should have every reason to expect that the same forces who sabotaged the rail strike will be on duty to attack the UPS workforce. As the UPS battle shapes up it will be imperative for the labor and the left to show complete support for the union. Ultimately another confrontation with the Biden regime is likely. Those confused or weak on the Biden question will again be tested.
William Z. Foster on Rail Labor
U.S. labor leader William Z. Foster spent many years as a rail worker, and later in his career he wrote extensively about the plight of the workforce at the hands of pro-company and corrupt union leaders, the rail companies, and politicians from both parties. An entire chapter on the rail situation of his day is included in his collected works, “American Trade Unionism”, available from International Publishers. Foster’s observations are required reading for anyone seeking background to the current rail situation and coming to grips with the approaching UPS battle. American Trade Unionism – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com)
Need Deeper Ideological Understanding
In the final section of Lenin’s work, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”, he observes that; “People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learned to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes.”
The left is duty-bound to support the next stages of the railroad worker’s struggle as well as the UPS workforce when that day arrives in a few months. An understanding of the mechanics and politics of the class struggle and the balance of class forces will show the way forward. The roles played by Biden and the other presumably “pro-union” politicians must be seen for what they really are. The interests of the workers must be held as paramount. The same chorus that attacked and abandoned the rail workers will surely come forward to try to wreck any chance of a successful strike against UPS. Those so-called “progressives” and others among the broad left who continue to make excuses for the inexcusable Biden strikebreaking must be held to account and confronted. Even if some try to apply rhetorical gymnastics to the coming UPS fight it is a simple division between those who support the workers and their union, their just demands, and those who support the corporations and the politicians who surrender to them.
To sum up, a fraud is a fraud. Once recognized, we must learn from it and chart a better course forward. Politicians whose loyalties lie with the corporate dictators cannot be trusted regardless of the party they belong to. Their words are only that. They must be measured by their deeds, and the magnitude of their deeds. To fail or refuse to do this is to invite further losses and defeats.
-Chris Townsend was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW.