Biden calls on railroad unions in Washington for talks to avoid strike

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A BNSF rail terminal employee watches for a departing freight train, June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Ill. [Credit: AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File]

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The federal National Mediation Board (NMB) on Wednesday called representatives of railroad unions in Washington, DC, for the start of three days of talks with government mediation to avert a nationwide railroad strike.

Last month, a Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Committee (PEB) released a report recommending a five-year contract covering 150,000 workers at the seven major Class I railroads. Workers are furious with the proposals and are pushing to strike action, which could legally begin as early as September 16, when the current “cooling-off period” expires.

The proposed deal contains salary increases of 22% over the life of the contract – barely half the current rate of inflation – the elimination of caps on individual contributions to health care and no change to punitive attendance policies who have already driven out tens of thousands of people. Industry.

In defiance of overwhelming opposition to the terms, five small unions have already signed tentative agreements as part of a divide and conquer strategy aimed at securing a deal and preventing a strike.

“We have horrible working conditions,” a CSX worker told the WSWS. “About 12 hours a day, and if you’re lucky enough to have a day off, they call you constantly. We have no rest. They constantly break [Federal Railroad Administration] rules and try to force us to do the same. We can’t have days off for doctor’s appointments or anything. They lie, cheat and steal. … They’re cutting jobs and offloading work to other jobs, pushing us to do more. A guy at my place of work passed out from the heat and had to be taken to hospital. All they care about is the price of their shares. Well, I say strike and shut them down and their stock. I had enough!”

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh participated in Wednesday’s talks, according to White House sources who spoke with Politics. This represents a major escalation in the Biden administration’s involvement, although Biden has already been heavily implicated through the mechanisms provided to him by the anti-labour railroad labor law, which is designed to virtually eliminate railroad strikes.

This includes the appointment of the PEB, which came mainly at the request of the rail unions themselves. Unions have misrepresented a PEB as a neutral arbiter that would save workers from having to strike. Predictably, however, like all other PEBs before it, if they side with the railroads.

The lines of battle are more and more clearly drawn. Railway workers have huge potential support in the working class, who would view a nationwide strike by railway workers as a signal call for them to press for their own demands. Trying to block that, however, is a conspiracy involving the union bureaucracy, the railroads, the White House and Congress.

The Biden administration is trying to use the services of the pro-corporate labor bureaucracy to stifle class struggle and enforce substandard contracts. As he rushes to prevent a railroad strike, Biden is working with unions to keep West Coast dockers working more than two months after their last contract expired.

But the fact that Wednesday’s talks took place is a sign of extreme nervousness that the union bureaucracy may not be controlling workers. The Politics The article which first reported on Walsh’s appearance added: ‘It is also a sign that contract negotiations between employers and the organizations that represent their approximately 150,000 workers are not going so well. than the White House might have hoped.”

Indeed, the talks were announced the weekend after the founding of the Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee, an independent group of workers fighting to organize opposition to union bureaucracy and force a strike to win workers’ demands. . The committee’s founding statement, “Building the Railroad Workers’ Committee to Fight for a National Railroad Strike!” has been widely read and distributed among railway workers.

Echoing the nervous comment of Politicsan article in The hill described a nationwide railroad strike as having the potential to “crush” the U.S. economy ahead of the midterm elections. This universal concern for “the economy”, i.e. the record profits and stock values ​​achieved since the start of the pandemic, expresses the fear that a strike could trigger a broader movement of the working class. against the intolerable conditions in which the “economy” is based. Indeed, even as Biden attempts to prevent a railroad strike, the Federal Reserve is deliberately seeking to trigger a recession by raising interest rates to suppress rising wages.

In its most significant passage, The hill the article states, “While Democrats are closely aligned with labor, organizers acknowledge they would likely not allow an extended strike just before the midterm elections. President Biden, who created PEB in July to help resolve the contract dispute, is focused on debottlenecking supply chains.

“After the pandemic and supply chain disruptions of the past two years, now is not the time for more uncertainty and disruption,” a White House official said. The hill. “Now is the time for the parties to resolve their differences, before the country’s economy begins to react even to the prospect of a nationwide rail shutdown.”

In other words, Biden fears that a strike, first, would fully expose the Democrats’ threadbare “pro-worker” pretensions in the critical weeks leading up to the midterm elections. A strike would expose unanimous bipartisan support for attacks on the working class, as it would likely trigger an attempt by Congress to intervene to shut it down. Despite the increasingly violent atmosphere of civil war within official American politics, both sides quickly locked arms against the railroad workers.

The White House statement exposes the unions’ own integration with the two-party system, and with Democrats in particular. While railroad unions have accused the railroads of relying on a threat of government intervention to prevent a strike, so are the unions themselves.

The unions are deliberately trying to stall a strike and sabotage workers’ strength by signing separate agreements, five of which have already been announced for unions covering stagehands, train dispatchers, carmen and electricians. This was essentially admitted in an unusual Labor Day statement by the two largest unions, the BLET and SMART-TD, which cover engineers and drivers.

The machinists’ proposal also includes a “me too” clause under which any better terms reached by another union would automatically apply for the machinists. This has drawn the ire of workers, who see it as a way of trying to entice machinists to abandon their brothers and sisters in other trades, especially engineers and conductors.

Even though workers in the smaller unions reject the TAs, the unions are trying to prevent them from taking part in a strike on September 16 by agreeing with management to extend the expiry of the “cooling off” period until the end of the month. This is an agreement that not a single rail worker voted on, let alone knew about before it was signed.

Workers must also be on the lookout for voter fraud and other underhanded tactics during the ballot itself. A train dispatcher told the WSWS that many of his colleagues had not received ballots in previous votes over many years, apparently due to an easily rectified discrepancy between mailing lists.

“I had this idea of ​​voter suppression in one form or another,” the dispatcher said. “I mean, once National knew that the error/excuse was two mailing lists, it should have been a very simple solution: merging the lists. But I don’t buy the two-list theory, because on the first day of employment, the union representatives go around and make you register and take your union dues for the first month.

“The [American Train Dispatchers Association] is a racketeering at the national level, in my opinion. They don’t send out ballots, they charge membership dues for many months but won’t protect them [until the end of their probationary period as new hires]. National even said they would choose which rule violations or disciplinary action they would pursue in arbitration.

Frank Wilner, former public relations director of SMART-TD, expressed bureaucracy’s contempt for workers at a The age of the railway article published on September 3 presenting the upcoming NMB talks. He said: “A looming stumbling block is membership ratification of tentative agreements, as fringe elements of the labor movement have launched independent social media campaigns calling for rejection, including an alleged investigation that violates scientific criteria for random sampling.”

In other words, the will of the railroad workers is only a “stumbling block” for ratifying a contract which they universally oppose, and groups which express the feeling of the majority – here Wilner is thinking above all of the Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee – are maligned as “outsiders”.

In reality, it is the union bureaucracy that is the “fringe”. They have no support from rank and file workers and are seeking to prevent a strike that workers voted over 99% in favor of.

The development of the railway workers’ struggle requires capitalizing on the momentum and organizing the opposition, independently of the trade union apparatus. This means joining and building the Railroad Base Committee.

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