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Labor leader Sean O'Brien, president of Teamsters labor union, speaks during the Labor Notes conference, in Chicago. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

What You Need to Know--But Probably Don't--About the Railway Labor Strike That Wasn't

Blaming Joe Biden diverts attention from the real problem: lack of a better organized, fully unified--and much more militant--railway union movement.

In November 2019--precipitously close to the Christmas holiday--Teamsters Canada shut down the Canadian National railroad. The Canadian Parliament has similar powers to the U.S. Congress to intervene in rail strikes. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under incredible pressure from business groups to pass "back-to-work" legislation, but he refused. The strike plowed on for 9 days, and the workers largely won the struggle.

It's time for President O'Brien and the mighty Teamsters Union to step up. The future of railroaders, Amazon workers, and UPS workers is at stake.

Why did Canadian rail workers get to strike in 2019 and U.S. rail workers not in 2022? It certainly isn't because Trudeau is any more pro-worker than Joe Biden. It is because Trudeau and the Liberals feared the Canadian Labour Movement, whose militant willingness to expand strikes recently forced Ontario Premier Doug Ford into a dramatic policy reversal.

The 2022 Freight Rail beef in the United States has received incredible coverage. Everyone from Newsmax to the New York Times to The Onion produced stories warning of crippled supply chains already at the breaking point due to overreliance on Just-In-Time inventory management, skeletal staffing levels, and lack of infrastructural investment by the private sector. This attention is a good thing, specifically as a new generation of leftists are now realizing that transportation and logistics are vital vectors for societal change. However, an alarming number of commentators are grafting their ideological purity and baseless suspicions on the situation as they restate half-truths time and again: Joe Biden is in bed with corporations. The Democrats and Republicans screwed over rail workers by taking away their right to strike. And so on.

Obviously, Joe Biden and both parties are in hock to corporate elites. However, Biden's performance in this case will surprise many.

Rail Labor leadership makes a key mistake

When Sean O'Brien was seated as Teamster General President in March 2022, one of his first acts was to visit the White House and plead with Biden to release Rail Labor from Mediation and form a Presidential Emergency Board. The Teamsters Union includes two of the twelve rail unions--the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees [BMWED] and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers [BLET]. They are both totally autonomous from each other, and have a long history of not working together, to put it kindly. Each union has approximately 25,000 members--down alarmingly in the past seven years as the industry has gone aggressively lean under the false moniker "Precision Scheduled Railroading" or PSR.

Biden's administration, which includes O'Brien's longtime Boston ally Marty Walsh, was nervous that ending Mediation would enable a national strike just before the 2022 midterms. But O'Brien's legendary charm won the day--he even got the President to let Rail Labor name the majority of the PEB! Unfortunately, the Rail Labor leaders offered up the names of career arbitrators when what was called for were progressive social scientists, economists, or other labor leaders.

Arbitrators are infamous for splitting the baby. And that's what the PEB 250 did. That's not Biden's fault, nor the fault of the two political parties. It's Rail Labor leadership's fault.

A Rail Strike was never intended by Rail Labor leaders

In truth, a railroad strike was never in the cards. Anyone with an appreciation of American Rail Labor History knows this. To back Congress off with their Constitutional right to intervene in anything that endangers interstate commerce, Rail Labor would have needed to wage a multi-year comprehensive contract campaign in advance of the round of bargaining, which began in January 2020. Comprehensive contract campaigns involve internal organizing, communications strategy, legislative strategy, regulatory strategy, legal strategy, and bargaining strategy--all in an intricately synchronized dynamic that puts the members, their escalating actions, and their stories at the center of the struggle.

If at the beginning of the round the union suspects that the negotiations will not go smoothly--and they never go smoothly these days--it is important to envision what amount of public support will be needed if striking becomes necessary. In the context of endangering the national transmission of life-sustaining cargo, this requires intense communication and coalition development across society in an effort to help communities understand that the union is bargaining for the common good. The nurses unions excel at this by forcing the issue of nurse-patient ratios at the table, and then positioning themselves as healthcare warriors in the public sphere.

Rail Labor has been unwilling to implement such a campaign centered on the members and the common good which is unfortunate given that the Railroads are actually sitting ducks: their safety record is so bad that inevitably a train with explosive or poisonous cargo will derail in or near a large population center unless strident re-regulation and re-staffing take place; their record of environmental destruction is on the scale of other mass industrial bad actors; their record of racist and misogynistic hiring practices is legendary; their price gouging is a key element behind the soaring inflation which has enraged Americans.

What it'll take for Rail Labor to win next time

Unfortunately, Rail Labor is in no condition to wage a militant struggle. Aside from the BMWED under the visionary leadership of Freddie Simpson in recent years, none of the Rail Labor unions have done strategic internal organizing at all. Most of the unions are small and spend the majority of their dues-income on the bloated salaries and benefits of their officers.

Railroad workers know full well how much economic power they have, but they have rarely been organized nationally to wield their power at the point of production.

In the case of Rail Labor, 12 craft unions represent 85% of the freight railroad workforce. You'd think they could stomp on the employers. But the craft union model--where each department has its own union--has historically led to self-interested selling out of each other. Furthermore, the Railroad "Brotherhoods" are oligarchic--in the rare cases where members directly elect their officers, incumbents have total control of the election machinery, making it all but impossible for reform candidates--assuming they can get on the ballot at all--to win.

Railroad workers know full well how much economic power they have, but they have rarely been organized nationally to wield their power at the point of production. These workers are suffering horrendous work schedules, occupational sickness, death rates, and in some cases grinding poverty. The rampant greed of the Railroad Corporations is not new, nor is the willingness of the political elite to suckle at their teats. But in the past 100 years, the Rail Brotherhoods have been unwilling or unable to conduct well-organized, militant strategies to maximize results in bargaining. As a result of all of this, workers are taking advantage of the tight labor market by fleeing the freight railroads for better union jobs. The American public will suffer crippled supply chains and continued horrific rates of train derailments as a result.

The Teamsters Union can play a unifying role here. Sean O'Brien has already shown the capacity to intervene in rail issues and get results--had it not been for his early intervention, Rail Labor would still be moored in Mediation. The Teamsters have the resources and experienced staff to construct a broadly comprehensive strategic plan, then implement it nationally with the long-abandoned rail union members and their communities. The Teamsters Union is the natural home for all rail workers--Eugene Debs' dream of an industrial union for rail workers can be achieved under the Teamster banner if enough will and perseverance are drummed up. The Teamsters will need rail workers to win big at UPS in 2023, or to organize Amazon--both key priorities for President O'Brien.

No one else is coming to save railroad workers--not the AFL-CIO. Not the well-meaning DSA chapters, and not the self-styled left-wing commentators. And certainly not the Rail Labor leaders--one of whom is so right-wing that he's been on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcasttwice in the past week.

It's time for President O'Brien and the mighty Teamsters Union to step up. The future of railroaders, Amazon workers, and UPS workers is at stake.

A version of this op-ed first appeared at The Stansbury Forum.