How to show solidarity with railroad workers

This video originally aired as a livestream on the Haymarket Books YouTube channel on November 1, 2022.

With the world in disarray after the COVID-19 Pandemic, in the midst of the growing threat of world war, climate disaster, and a global cost-of-living crisis, railroad workers in the United States are currently engaged in one of the most important struggles in recent labor history, in an industry that is at the heart of the functioning of the country.

The rail industry has seen massive deregulation, lean production, and persistent undermining of working conditions that have made the work all but intolerable. Despite enormous political pressure, railroad workers are fed up, evidenced by the sections of workers who are voting NO on a Tentative Agreement that they feel doesn’t address the base safety and quality of life issues they are willing to strike over. Railroad Workers United (RWU), a cross-union democratic organization of working railroaders, has launched a Vote No Campaign, insisting that this Tentative Agreement offers very little given the conditions they face and the role they play in the economy. RWU will also discuss their statement for the International Public Ownership of the Railroads.

If the railroad workers lead a strike, it will have immediate implications—economically and politically—for every sector of US society, most importantly for the labor movement and for the working people within it.

In a special panel co-hosted by The Real News and Haymarket Books, Railroad Workers United members speak about their struggle, the situation on the rails, and how you can get involved in efforts to support them. In our world of incredible violence and oppression, the struggles of railroad workers must be connected to the struggles of teachers, nurses, service workers, climate and anti-war activists, and all working people in a general fight for peace, freedom, and dignity for all.


Transcript

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Elizabeth Lalasz:  Good evening, everyone. I’d like to welcome you to tonight’s panel, Solidarity with Railroad Workers, sponsored by Railroad Workers United, RWU, and Haymarket Books. My name’s Elizabeth Lalasz. I’m a registered nurse in Chicago, a steward with National Nurses United, and a member of the Tempest Collective. I’m also part of the Railroad Workers Solidarity Team, which is the group that helped to organize this panel with RWU Workers Max, and Haymarket Books.

We want to thank our co-sponsors. We have, as of today, over 70 co-sponsors. We’ll put the link in the chat. There’s been an incredible outpouring of support and solidarity as we’ve been building this meeting, and we’ve been continuing to receive co-sponsors throughout today, and will continue to do so. So thank you very much to everyone, and we’ll talk a little bit more about who some of them are once we get to later in the program.

Railroad workers are engaged in one of the most important struggles in recent labor history, with their industry at the heart of the functioning of this country. If railroad workers do lead a strike, it will have significant, immediate implications for all of us in every sector of US society. Tonight, we have an incredible panel of members of Railroad Workers United, RWU, across Union Democratic Organization of Working Railroaders, who will speak about their situation on the rails, about their struggle, and how you can get involved in efforts to support them. The success of this campaign is urgent, and solidarity is critical right now. We encourage you to stick around for the entire panel and discussion to find out more about how you can build solidarity where you are with the railroad workers fight.

Now, I’d like to introduce our facilitator and panelists. Our facilitator tonight is Maximillian Alvarez, editor in chief of the Real News Network. He has covered this struggle on the rails extensively over the last year or more. Then our panelists: First is Ross Grooters. He is a locomotive engineer working out of Des Moines, Iowa, and a co-chair of RWU. Ron Kamikow is an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, and an organizer with RWU. Gabe Christenson, Railroader for Union Pacific, member of Smart TD in Sparks, Nevada, and steering committee member of RWU. Reece Murtagh, I’m sorry, railway mechanic working for CSX and member of the IAM District Lodge 19, who’s been critical of his union’s leadership handling of the contract vote, and he’s running to be its president. Then we’re waiting on, hopefully, two other RWU members, Jason Doering, co-chair of Railroad Workers United and Nevada state legislature director for Smart TD, and Paul Lindsey, BLM team member and steering committee member of RWU. So with that, take it away, Max.

Max Alvarez:  All right. Well, thank you so much, Elizabeth. Huge, huge thank you to Haymarket Books, Railroad Workers United, Democratic Socialists of America, and the incredible number of organizations that have signed on to co-sponsor this event. There’s not a whole lot in the world right now that gives me hope, but seeing this level of solidarity and support for our siblings on the railroads is truly one of those sources of hope for me, as I imagine it is for all of you. So I just really wanted to thank everyone watching for caring about this. Thank you for spreading the word and thank you to everyone who has expressed your support.

The ultimate goal here, of course, for this livestream is to build solidarity with our fellow workers on the railroads, to help y’all understand a bit more about the situation that they are facing, how it impacts them, and how it impacts, as Elizabeth said, all of us, and who is responsible for the conditions on the railroads right now because in many ways, railroad workers are the last line of defense against a decades-long attempt to turn the nation’s freight railroads into a profit-generating scheme where the quality of service keeps going down, the quality of life for workers on the railroads keeps going down; the prices for us, the consumers keep going up, all while stock buybacks and profits and shareholder dividends for the freight rail companies are jacked up sky high. That is what we are here to discuss.

Of course, we are on the precipice of the first potential national rail shutdown that this country has seen since the early ’90s, and many people around the country were alerted to this fact in September of this year as we were quickly approaching the deadline after which strikes initiated by the 12 craft rail unions or lockouts initiated by the freight one rail carriers could take effect.

Now, most people hadn’t heard about what was going on on the railroads until that point. So understandably, I think this is a major failure of our media, which we at the Real News have tried to correct, along with other great outlets like Labor Notes, In These Times and others who have been working their tails off to inform people about what’s going on on the railroads.

We’re not going to be able to really dig into all of the hairy mess, the long history of how the railroads got to where they are now and what that has meant for workers. We’re not going to be able to kind of dig into all the nuances of the Railway Labor Act. It should be noted up front that labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act. They are governed by the Railway Labor Act, which is quite different, and I’ll say a little more about that in a minute.

So there was a whole lot people didn’t understand when they suddenly heard that we burdened supply chain was at risk of experiencing another system shock with a rail shutdown. People were racing around, demanding that a shutdown be averted without really understanding how we got to this point in the first place. Then at the 11th hour before we crossed the deadline in hammering out a deal between the rail carriers and the rail unions to at least forestall a national rail shutdown, initiate another cooling off period, and to settle on a tentative agreement that would be put up for ratification votes by the respective unions representing over 100,000 workers on the nation’s freight railroads. So that’s probably where you last heard about this story. Then, as these stories often do, it poofed and vanished from most mainstream media coverage. But this story has not gone away just because mainstream media has stopped covering it.

In fact, a lot of developments have continued to unfold. As we speak, we are once again on the verge of a potential national rail shutdown, and I’m going to actually have our panelists sort of talk a little bit about what that could look like and what would need to happen for such a shutdown to be initiated because no one wants to hear from me. We want to hear from the workers, and I’m going to run through the rest of this introduction so that we can get to them.

But what you need to know as of right now, since that tentative agreement was reached in September, 6 of the 12 unions that were at the bargaining table have already voted to ratify that tentative agreement. However, the third largest rail workers union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way employees division voted the agreement down. Last week, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman also announced that its membership had rejected the deal. Votes are coming in starting at the beginning of this week for other unions representing workers on the freight railroads who may also reject this tentative agreement. So, we could in fact see a national rail shutdown as early as the end of this month. We’re going to kind of explain to y’all why, and most importantly, what you can do to show support for railroad workers now and what we can all do to address the crisis that has led us to this point, which is not going to suddenly go away even if a national rail strike or national rail lockout is averted.

So first, a note on the Railway Labor Act. Another quick note about the systemic issues on the railroads, and then we’re going to get straight onto our panelists.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, facing brutal and often deadly working conditions and working in an industry that was rife with disorganization, price fixing and pillage by fiendish robber barons, railroad workers showed the entire country and the capitalist class that they had the power to bring the economy to its knees. From the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, and the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, strikes on the nation’s railroads were some of the largest and most widely felt in this country’s history. That is why the business class and business class-serving politicians pushed so hard in the 1920s and ’30s to force through what we now call the Railway Act… that it is specifically designed to prevent a strike on the railroads. That is essentially its function. There’s a whole lot of provisions baked into it that we can’t go into it right now. I would highly recommend Googling it and taking a look for yourself. Check out the Railroad Workers United website, which has a myriad of important aids to help you understand what’s going on on the railroads right now.

But what you most need to understand is that the long, drawn-out nature of this process, the fact that railroad workers have gone three years without a new contract, that negotiations have been so protracted that a federal mediations board was appointed to try to broker a deal between the two sides, which it was unable to, declaring an official impasse in June, which also the Railway Labor Act, the provision in there is that the president can appoint a presidential emergency board to offer non-binding recommendations to broker a deal if there ever is an impasse like the one that we’ve experienced of late between the rail carriers and the rail unions. That happened.

A board was appointed in July. It officially released its recommendations in August. The rail carriers, the companies that own the freight railroads, enthusiastically endorsed the proposals. Rail workers, not so much. So that should tell you a little bit about what was in the Presidential Emergency Board report. We’re going to hear from our panelists a little more about that in a second.

That initiated another 30-day cooling off period, and we were approaching the end of that period in September, which is when lockouts or strikes could begin. So, that’s why we’ve got all of these hoops that the unions and carriers and the government have been jumping through just to get to the point at which a strike could legally happen or a lockout could legally happen. But even then, as happened in the 1990s, Congress could always just step in at the last second, force a back to work order, force a contract on the unions. That could very much happen now, which is why we need to understand that what a strike that could happen is not the end all be all here, because Congress has that power; the rail carriers know it; the workers know it. So there’s a lot more long-term strategy that we need to be thinking about at the same time that we need to be preparing as much as we can right now in the immediate sense to provide as much support and solidarity for railroad workers in this moment.

Finally, a word about how we got to this point and how, in fact, it is a deliberately crafted policy initiated at the top and implemented across the respective rail carriers in this country that has allowed the rail system to become, as I mentioned before, a profit-maximizing, cost-cutting, worker-destroying scheme that has reduced the quality of service, that has turned freight rail trains into these mega monster trains that are run by just two people, and the rail carriers want to get that down to one person.

Actually, Peter Goodman recently wrote for the New York Times, he can put it better and more succinctly than I could. He wrote, “Since 2004, the unions note,” the rail unions, “the profits of the largest American railroads have increased more than sevenfold, reaching nearly 23 billion last year. In the four years before the pandemic, three major carriers, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and CSX Transportation collectively devoted $42 billion to repurchasing their stock, a step that boosts share prices then 14%, while pay for chief executives more than doubled.” Since 2015, the class one freight rail carriers have a 1980-2019, total employment in the railroad industry fell from around 500,000 workers to just around 130,000. At the same time, as we mentioned, corporate consolidation has been on steroids on the freight rail system. In 1980, there were 40 class one railroads. Today, there are just seven. Of those seven, four have 83%-90% of the freight railroading market.

So, you have these long brewing trends of corporate consolidation on the nation’s freight railroad system. You have the massive elimination of the workforce on that rail system, the lowering of the operating costs so that the shareholders and CEOs and executives at the top of these companies can maximize their profits while essentially pushing way more work onto way fewer workers in way more dangerous and unwieldy conditions.

That is what workers have been raising the alarm about. That is what the Presidential Emergency Board did absolutely nothing to address. With all of that, this is how we sort of ended up to where we are now, is a real standoff, where from the Biden administration to the rail carriers, the hope is that rail workers can simply be bought off with more raises, even though they are still fighting to have a single paid sick day. They are being run into the ground with horrendous schedules, and many are on call 24/7. Many don’t have regular schedules and thus knowability to plan or live their lives in any sort of meaningful, comfortable way, which is very, very hard. And yet none of these quality of life issues are really being addressed. None of the issues that have driven the supply chain into the ground because of corporate greed are really being addressed. Workers are really the last ones fighting this fight.

So, we have to stand with them and we have to hear what they have to say, and that is what we are going to do right now. I hope that sort of breakdown in seven minutes or less at least gives you a bit of a grounding in where we are right now and how we got to this point. But again, our esteemed panelists, the amazing folks from Railroad Workers United and our other guests are going to be able to break this down for y’all much better than I could.

So with that, I want to bring in some of our amazing panelists here, who I believe we’re all here… I’m going to ask y’all if when you first speak, if you could just quickly introduce yourself, maybe say who you are, where you are, what your position is, how long you’ve been doing that, just so folks can get to know a little more about you up top.

We’ve talked a bit about corporate consolidation, cost cutting. We’ve talked about these changes that have been brewing on the railroads for a long time. We talked a little bit about the Railway Labor Act. But I know that a lot of folks right now still have questions about how all of this works, right? Why are there 12 craft unions on the railroads? What does it mean if one of them votes the tentative agreement down and votes to go on strike? I want to turn it over to my man, Ron Kamikow, and ask Ron, if you could, just sort of enlighten us a little bit on that so that folks who are watching and listening to this have a fuller picture of what’s happening right now.

Ron Kamikow:  For sure. Thank you, Max. My name is Ron Kamikow. I’m a locomotive engineer. I hired out with Conrail in 1996. In ’99, of course, our section of Conrail went to Norfolk Southern. I was working out of Chicago. Make a long story short, I was a early refugee from the freight industry, came to Amtrak, and now I’m working in Reno, Nevada as a locomotive engineer.

The craft union system on the railroad dates way back. Railroad workers were some of the first workers to get organized. We had very, very difficult, dangerous working conditions, in fact, more dangerous than coal mining. So workers got organized early 1860s, 1870s and ’80s. By the 1880s, it was apparent that this craft union system really wasn’t working in terms of building worker power. Folks like the great Eugene V. Debs and other progressive or enlightened rail union leaders of the time basically called for an industrial union, and the idea there was all railroad workers should be in the same organization. We work for the same companies. Why are we divided by craft?

Anyway, not to go too deep into that. We are still saddled with the craft union system. It was further ossified by the Railway Labor Act in 1926. We at one point had 26 unions on the railroad. It’s been pared down to 12. But many of those unions are quite small.

For those who were keeping score, if you will, you might have noticed, for example, the boiler makers and blacksmiths, which was a big union on the railroad at one time when we had steam locomotives, there’s only 500 that are party to this national agreement. The American Trained Dispatchers Association, I think, there’s maybe about 1,000 party to the agreement. Same with the Smart Mechanical Division. So in fact, while six unions have approved of the tentative agreement, that only amounts to 20% of rail labor. We have three unions that have rejected the contract, and that actually amounts to 30% of rail labor. If the BLE and the Smart TD both reject the contract later in November, we will see basically 80% of rail labor rejecting the contract. But this all remains to be seen.

The point about the craft union system, though it’s on display for all railroad workers and the whole world to see its ineffectiveness, its inefficiency, the complete and total chaos, and most importantly, the lack of solidarity, the lack of unity, the inability for us to act as one. And that’s what a union is. Sometimes, in my least generous moments, I say that we don’t have unions on the railroad; we have 12 clubs. But what we need is a industrial union of all railroad workers, ultimately. We miss the CIO. We predated the Congress of Industrial Organizations of the 1930s. So we don’t have an auto worker’s union or a steel worker’s union, a rubber worker or a textile worker’s union. We have all of these different organizations divided by craft, which unfortunately is to our detriment in terms of achieving power. So that’s where we’re at.

We’re making the best of a bad situation, as we have for 150 years. But railroad workers at the grassroots do believe in solidarity, do believe in unity, and across craft and across unions. That’s what we’re going to be talking about here tonight.

Max Alvarez:  Just a quick clarification note on that front, Ron, while I’ve got you. Because I know this is the question a lot of folks who have watched our coverage at The Real News have asked. Given that there are these 12 craft unions, and given that there are different rail carriers but they negotiate as a collective conference, it does not take all 12 unions rejecting the tentative agreement and saying we’re going to go on strike for a national rail shutdown to happen. Correct? Could you just say a little more about how… I guess, in the nineties, how even just one union or one dispute with one carrier can trigger a larger shutdown.

Ron Kamikow:  Yeah. Thank goodness for rank and file solidarity amongst working railroaders. So exactly Max, I mean as much as the craft union system is an impediment to us achieving solidarity and power, it is true that even if one of the smaller unions were to call a strike and put up picket lines, all of us are under obligation by the brotherhood and the sisterhood, the concepts of trade unionism and basic solidarity that we will not cross the picket line. And so therefore if any of the unions were to go on strike in the coming weeks and months, we will all honor those picket lines and it will result in a national rail shutdown.

Max Alvarez:  And as Ron told me here at the Real News in a previous interview, if you live near a rail terminal, there’s a picket line near you. And chances are you within spitting distance of one. And so this is not something that you need to wait for. This is not something happening somewhere else. This is happening right now all around us and we all need to be doing whatever we can in our respectives fears to reach out to our siblings on the railroads to ask what we can do to support them and to be prepared if and when that picket line is formed. So I want to bring in the great Ross Grooters here for a sec, who you may have all heard during Ross’s phenomenal appearance on Briahna Joy Gray’s, Bad Faith podcast, which is also a really, really helpful resource for folks who want to know how we got to this point, what’s going on inside the freight rail system.

But Ross, I wanted to ask you, because this is where the devil’s really in the details, right? Because the rail carriers are talking about how y’all are getting the largest salary increase in their history, but they’re conveniently leaving out that you’ve been without a contract for three years, so thus you’ve gotten no pay raises. So that’s a little inflated. They also don’t mention that inflation’s going to gobble up a lot of that. Healthcare costs are going to gobble that up, so on and so forth. So again, we’re not going to be able to sort dig into all the nuances here, but I wanted to ask you if you could walk viewers and listeners through how the hell have these contract negotiations been stalled for three years?

Ross Grooters:  Yeah, thanks for that introduction Max. As Max said, I’m Ross Grooters. I’m a locomotive engineer. I’ve been with the railroad for 19 years here in central Iowa. As to why negotiations have been stalled for three years, that’s part of the process playing out through the Railway Labor Act and the NCCC or the National Carriers Conference Committee, which is comprised of the six class one railroads, has largely been unresponsive and refused to negotiate and inflexible in wielding any ground whatsoever. So the process had to get pushed along through, what takes a flow chart of multiple steps in order to progress to this point. And it’s largely greed is the simple answer. When we talk about contract specifics, as you mentioned, five years, 22% before it’s compounded, I think is going to prove to be maybe keep us on pace with inflation. So for many of us, when we look at what we’ve experienced in the last three years and even prior, the first step in the Railway Labor Act is to serve six and six notices.

The industry in just three years has changed so drastically and it’s not too much different than what other workers are facing, whether it be nurses or teachers or people in the service sector. What it boils down to is that there are fewer workers on the railroad. I think we last peaked around 2017 with around 148,000 union railroad workers. Today we’re closer to 114 or 115,000. And so you have fewer workers doing more work faster and it is unsustainable and it is not the kind of conditions that we can continue to work under and guarantee a functioning safe supply chain. So I think that’s the big overall reason you see it getting to this point today. And it’s stalled because the carriers are unreceptive to doing anything that doesn’t continue to extract those profits, fuel shareholder dividends and stock buybacks and just sell off this resource we have and extract that wealth from the system.

Max Alvarez:  Well honestly, my head has exploded many times over the course of this year. Every time, like my jaw drops when I read about what the rail carriers have done and what they continue to push for and have pushed for over the course of these negotiations. And again, we’re not going to be able to go into all of that here, but there’s a lot of great coverage out there that of all of you watching and listening can check out. But just as a quick anecdote, I first came to this story here at the Real News when I learned that 17,000 union railroad workers at BNSF Railway were prepared to go on strike at the beginning of the year over the implementation of a draconian new attendance policy termed Hi-Viz, which has eerie Orwellian overtones of high visibility in a situation where engineers and conductors are already heavily surveilled with cameras in the cabs and so on and so forth.

So the Hi-Viz policy, which was it is not an anomaly, it’s part of the larger trend that is affecting railroad workers across the industry, but it is really taken to draconian heights that gives people this kind of Rube Goldberg style point system where they can, in theory, take certain time off, lose certain points on certain days, but if they miss a shift, if they call out sick, they rack up a whole bunch of points against them on their tally and they have to work weeks if not months, just to gain some of those points back. So workers were prepared to strike over this. Then a US district court blocked workers from striking on February 1st saying it would do irreparable harm to the supply chain. And then months later, what we have been hearing from workers at BNSF and in other freight rail companies is that the supply chain has been irreparably damaged because workers are being run into the ground, reportedly quitting in record numbers because no human being can keep up with this kind of workload.

And again, this is a self-induced crisis, like what Ross just said. The rail carriers have been slashing their workforce and piling more work onto folks like Ross and telling them to do more. And since they have eliminated all of those workers, there are no backups hardly. And so that is why they have to implement these draconian attendance policies to make sure that basically no one ever takes any time off because it’s going to throw off the whole system because these brain geniuses in the corporate office figured out that if we just make workers do everything and sacrifice their entire lives and we have as few of them as possible doing as much work as possible, we can rake in all of that extra profit.

Again. I’m like how long can this go on? So that’s the situation we’re already in and yet we hear that the rail carriers were pushing to reduce two person crews down to one person to make it even worse. So Ross, I wanted to just ask you one more question before we move on because we’re not going to go into the whole, this is how terrible everything is on the railroads. I think we’ve gotten that message across for folks over the past few months, but it does bear repeating. But I just wanted to ask if you could say a little more about the direction the carriers have been pushing in and during this round of negotiations and even before and where this is all headed, especially for railroad workers like yourself.

Ross Grooters:  Yeah, thanks for that. I think one important thing that maybe hasn’t been stated quite yet is many, if not most freight railroad workers are on call 24 7 and don’t really have a firm schedule or any idea of when they’re going to work. In fact, you’d be on call and have perhaps as little as 90 minutes, maybe two to three hours to report to work from when the phone rings and continually working under the Federal Hours of Service Law in a system that keeps you coming back to work every 12 to 14 hours. And what the carriers are trying to do is to continue that and through work rule changes, make it so it’s even more difficult for us to have any controls on our schedule, make it so that it’s even more difficult to manage our time off or have any time off whatsoever. And so the work rules that they’re pushing haven’t even been agreed to in this contract.

And that’s part of the problem with the contract is the operating crafts that will fall under these work rule changes are dealing with the fact that it’s not even spelled out in the contract. And in fact it would go to binding arbitration if it can’t be negotiated on certain property agreements. The problem with that is we’ve seen the last three years that the railroads are unwilling to negotiate in good faith. So I think it’s hard for us to take seriously the idea that they are going to do so if we pass this agreement. And I also think it’s telling that we’ll hear from some of the non-operating crafts. I think it’s telling that the non-operating crafts that don’t even fall under those worst work rule changes to the contract are willing to say no to this. And that’s because they’ve faced the same slashing of the workforce as well, which has made it more unsafe for all of us and for all of our communities.

Max Alvarez:  I think that’s absolutely right and something that people should really take to heart. As Ron mentioned earlier, you have these different craft unions, which on some level makes sense because something that we want to impress upon people, as Ross just did, is that it’s not just conductors and engineers who work on the railroads, A lot of different people doing a lot of different jobs in the machine yards, on the tracks, dispatching, calling signals, making sure people don’t get killed crossing these tracks. A lot of people do a lot of essential labor to keep the railroads running and they all sacrifice the whole hell of a lot to keep them running during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet we are kind of here at this moment where, after contract negotiations were officially declared at an impasse earlier this year, the Presidential Emergency Board was appointed to try to review both sides demands and their offers, offer a sort of middle of the road solution.

And that became the framework for the tentative agreement that was struck in the 11th hour in September with some additional sweeteners as we call them. And yet that is what a number of unions have already rejected and what other unions that are currently voting may reject as well. So I wanted to ask and bring our boy Gabe in here real quick and remember, Gabe, if you could just give a little introduction to the good viewers and listeners, if you could say a little bit about why the PEB recommendations fell so flat for so many rank and file workers and what the state of contract negotiations is right now, I guess in the aggregate. What do people most need to understand about where we are right now?

Gabe Christensen:  Hi, I’m Gabe Christensen. I’m a freight conductor here in Nevada. Co-chair RWU, and I’m the assistant state legislative director for Smart TD. Where we’re at with the negotiations right now is pretty much everybody’s, if they haven’t voted it up or down yet, they’re waiting for their ballots like Smart. I should have got my ballot today, maybe tomorrow. Then we go to a 21 day voting period. Where the TA and the PEB fell short was, it didn’t even touch the quality of life issues that we have out here. There’s no sick days that we’re involved in that.

We got one extra paid day of vacation, but they won’t let us take vacation. So we’re just kind of in standby mode right now with the voting that’s going on. Basically what we’ve seen from the TA and the PEB is, it’s purely a job slashing what was given to the railroads in that and it’s going to actually make the quality of live for railroaders worse because our schedules are going to be even more unpredictable with the self protecting pools that they’re trying to implement and things like that. So the issues everyone is having is it’s not making anything better. It’s actually going to make it quite a bit worse from what we have right now. And we didn’t think they could do that, but they did.

Max Alvarez:  And just a quick sort of follow up question, which I imagine is on folks’ minds right now. It goes back to what Ross was saying right, about how it’s very telling that even folks in different unions outside of the BLET or Smart TD are not fans of this tentative agreement and prepared to vote it down. It sort of speaks to the importance of seizing the moment that we have because it may not come around again. And I know that that has been a factor with the sort of strategy from the union negotiating teams that we supposedly have the most pro-union president in American history. We supposedly have a labor friendly Democratic controlled Congress. So perhaps if rail carriers, as Ross mentioned, are not bargaining in good faith, not addressing the issues that workers have been raising for so long, perhaps the Presidential Emergency Board or if not Congress, if it kind of forces a settled agreement between the carriers and the unions will favor labor’s side more than the carriers side.

The PEB seem to kind of reveal that that’s probably not going to be the case. And so I wanted to just ask Gabe if you could say a little bit about what you and other folks on the ground are hearing about why people are prepared to take this step and try to fight as hard as they can, even to the point of initiating a rail strike. Is there a sense that this is kind of the last best hope that we have to address some of these issues? Because if they’re not addressed then it seems to be a full throated endorsement from the government on down that the rail carers can just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Gabe Christensen:  Right. Exactly. I’ve yet to see how union friendly our politicians are right now. We heard very little noise other than that we would be put back to work if we did go on strike. This is our last stand. Railroaders are so united right now more than I’ve seen in my almost 20 years of working out here. And the hopes are that if we push it and keep fighting that we will get what we are we deserve. They can’t keep squeezing us the way they are and they keep talking about the raises, but it’s barely going to keep up with the increases to our healthcare and everything like that.

Everyone I’ve talked to across the nation as far as railroaders, all different crafts, they’re ready to fight. If we have to go on strike will go on strike. We can’t do this anymore. Just the quality life is not there. We used to have the ability to take care of our families, take care of ourselves. And like you spoke earlier with the Hi-Viz policy and the other attendance policies that the other carriers have, we can’t do that anymore. So this is the last big fight that we have and we are holding out hope that we do have people that are going to back us. So if it comes to a strike, it comes to a strike. But we’re all ready to fight.

Max Alvarez:  And speaking of that fight and what it’s looking like on the ground, I wanted to bring Reese in here. Do we have Reese on the call? Yes. So the rail division of the machinists was one of the unions in the craft coalition that voted down the tentative agreement. And while of course the real kind of clear antagonists in this situation are the rail carriers, the executives and their shareholders. I really want to underline that and make that clear that there’s a culprit behind the misery that workers have been experiencing. There is a culprit behind the reduction in quality of service that has shippers on the rail lines so fed up right now. There is a culprit behind the higher cost that you have already been paying because of all of these corporate shenanigans.

I know that we’re all worried about what a rail shutdown would mean for prices of goods when inflation’s already high. But what I really want to stress to you is that those prices are already high because of what the rail carriers have been doing to the supply chain for years, even before COVID-19. So I wanted to bring Reece in here and ask you if Reece, A, you could introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what this sort of rejection of the tentative of agreement has meant for the machinists and what you’re hearing from folks over there about what they want to see moving forward from the union and from the rail carriers.

Reece Murtagh:  Hello, Reese Murtagh. I’m a CSX roadway mechanic and also a local chairman of Lodge 696 Richmond, Virginia. So we were the first group to vote down the TA. I’m very proud of that. Our guys shot it down. Our guys are highly skilled. We’re certified welders who work on modern diesel engines, computer controlled electrical systems, hydraulics, pneumatic systems. Many of our members have CDL driver’s licenses. Simply put, the TA was not good enough for us. The next TA, right now what we’re voting on, still isn’t good enough. So let me back up to September 13th. We rejected the TA. We also voted to strike. This vote was supported by 89% of the members. Very important to note this vote occurred inside the 30 day cooling off after the PEB was issued. What that mean? This means that our members had every legal right to strike under the Railway Labor Act on September 16th.

Instead of respecting the members vote to strike, District Lodge 19 leadership, put out a press release on September 14th pushing back our strike 13 days, out of respect for the other unions in the ratification process. This is a bit ironic because the IAM was the first union to break out of the coalition and chase after a TA that was not good enough for his membership. So simply put here that IAM went against its members vote. And as we all know in a union, you do not do that. The purpose of a labor union is to represent the collective voice of its members, not undermine it. When this happens, it’s time for change.

Max Alvarez:  Oh yeah, brother. I mean I think that’s spot on, right? And this is why, again, I would caution folks watching and listening to proceed with caution when you’re reading about what’s happening on the railroads through the lens of mainstream media, right? Because the entire media establishment was celebrating a victory for Biden and unions after the TA was reached in September. No one cared that the rank and file hadn’t even seen the TA, that they weren’t going to see it for many days more. And that when they did see it, many of them were quite pissed off. And so it’s important to understand is as Reece just highlighted, that the rank and file are pushing for leadership that is going to adequately represent them in their interests at the bargaining table. And that again, is something that I think we should all be supporting because it is ultimately workers who make the world run and workers should have the ultimate say in how things are run.

Which brings us to the kind of big picture, immediate and long term kind of action items that we really want to address on this livestream. Because of course, again, the question is what can we all do to support folks like Reese, Ross, Gabe, Ron, everyone on the railroads right now. Now in the immediate sense and for the long term. And so if you have been following Railroad Workers United, there’s been some really exciting stuff coming out of there, including a proposal to nationalize the freight or the nation’s railroad systems, which I think is really, really significant, again, given everything that we’re talking about.

And I just wanted to sort of highlight a quote that was written by the brilliant journalist and my colleague Mel Buer here for the Real News. Mel wrote back in July, “Between the war in Ukraine, two plus years of a deadly pandemic, extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, a trade war between US and China and other larger than life factors. The supply chain has experienced a series of shocks that have experts sounding the alarm and businesses lamenting the seemingly unavoidable spikes in the cost of goods which have been passed onto consumers. These system shocks have provided a ready made culprit for delays and disruptions all along the US supply chain. Missing from the equation though, are the rail carriers themselves, the billionaires who own them and the overpaid CEOs who run them who are.”

These are the folks who are raking in record profits as everything else is going to shit. Pardon my language. So I think we have a clear case here of a corporate class demonstrating that they are not fit to run such a vital utility upon which our entire society and economy depends. And this is what Railroad Workers United and the proposal that they sent out for nationalizing, the rail system, I think that’s why it’s so powerful. And I wanted to toss it back to Ross to ask if you could say a little more about this proposal and about this is not some pie in the sky dream. This is actually a very sensible move that people should be considering carefully.

Ross Grooters:  Yeah, I appreciate that. This is not a resolution that we passed lightly. We gave it a significant amount of thought. In fact, going back several of our biannual conventions, it’s something that we’ve talked about for a long time. I think first and foremost, going into negotiations, you want to go in with the strongest possible position. And I can’t imagine anything more that these rail carriers would hate than to have railroad infrastructure in this country be publicly owned just like it is in most, if not the large majority of industrial freight railroad systems throughout the world. And in fact, it’s not so unfamiliar in this country when we think about public infrastructure, whether it be the interstate highway system or our airports and ports. These things are publicly owned and operated for the good of the nation’s supply chain.

And so now is the time, I think, to push this idea more broadly and try to introduce that into the discussion because as I’m totally it up in looking here, third quarter railroad profits alone for just four of the six class one railroads was over $6 billion in the last quarter. That’s three months profits that are, again, they’re being extracted out of the system and they’re gone. Whereas if we had a nationalized system that we were running for the good of the supply chain, we could ensure it’s safety and we could reinvest that money to make it even better. And I’d also give a nod to Brother Ron Kamikow. He works on Amtrak. He can talk a little bit about how the freight railroads treat passenger rail as he’s experienced it firsthand. And I’d appreciate if Ron, you want to jump in?

Ron Kamikow:  Yeah, I’d love to. Ross. Like Ross said, this is something that Railroad Workers United has debated and discussed for over a decade. And as we see the one two punch of the precision scheduled railroading, the decimation of the workforce, shipper complaints at an all time high, practically every shipping group in the country from trash and recycling to coal, ferrous metals to chemicals are all complaining. And this dates back before the pandemic with the level of service. There’s so many reasons right now that American people should be thinking about putting the rail infrastructure of this country into public ownership. And as Ross said, this is throughout the world something that is routine. And in our own country, the inland waterways, the airports, seaports, interstate highways, local and city, county roads are all owned publicly. And so this is not a radical idea, even though we may be dated as being radical.

I guess that’s a question of degree and everything’s relative. But if you look at the rest of the world’s transportation infrastructure and even our own country’s transportation infrastructure, this is hardly a radical idea. So in addition to the low level of service, in addition to the railroad system in this country failing on almost every single metric, whether it’s car dwell time in yards, whether it’s average freight train speed, customer satisfaction, there’s only one metric that seems to matter and that is operating ratio and stock price and dividends and profits. And so on that, as Ross said, third quarter record profits being announced, it’s just bald face it in the middle of a contract dispute that might bring the nation to a halt where they cannot provide us with a few days of sick time, but yet they are capable of making exorbitant profits year over year. 

But a few other things to mention, in case people aren’t aware, the rail system in this country is moving less freight than it did 16 years ago. And this is really crucial because other means of freight transport are booming. The economy has grown enormously since 2006. So the freight is moving, but it’s not moving by rail. And this is tragic because rail is the most efficient means, the safest means of transportation known to humanity. And so why is the rail industry moving less freight? Well, because they can jack up prices and they have a different model of how to make their industry profitable. Most industries that aren’t monopolies simply have to go out, beat the bushes and get more business, not the US rail industry.

It simply cuts costs, introduces new technology, doubles up the work on the existing workforce, contracts out work to non-union sector, eliminates tens of thousands of jobs and then basically jacks around their customers, treats them like crap and jacks up the prices. So as Ross said, this has other knock on effects. I work for Amtrak currently. Amtrak is in an all time low situation in terms of being able to run its trains on time. As most folks know, Amtrak runs on the private rail system in this country for about 90% of its route mileage and is beholden and subject to the terms of their “host railroad”. Well, the host railroads aren’t very good and we have trains that are chronically 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 hours late, held up by long freight trains. PSR, one of the hallmarks of precision scheduled railroading is very, very long trains and they don’t fit in the sightings and they break down and they are slow and cumbersome and so forth.

And so not only is the existing rail system not moving the handful of Amtrak trains on time, it is vehemently opposed to the introduction of new Amtrak trains and new frequencies and new routes. And it is a big conflict right now down in the Gulf where Amtrak would like to do a test run and restore a route that was eliminated after Hurricane Katrina and just bring back two little trains from Mobile to New Orleans. And CSX and Norfolk Southern are vehemently opposed, even though they’re only running 10 trains a day on that route, they insist that any Amtrak trains is just not doable and that’s a huge amount of public subsidy is granted to them. So one more thing on the nationalization question.

I know a lot of railroaders out there might feel like this is a radical notion and that private enterprise is the way to go. Well, a hundred years ago, the railroad system in this country was actually nationalized for a brief period for about two years, during World War I. The railroad workers and their unions at that time voted overwhelmingly like 98% in a plebiscite of all rank and file railroad workers to keep the railroads under national control with maximum worker participation in running those railroads. And it was what was known as the plum plan. And I highly advised folks who were interested to check that out.

And so here we are today where this once again seems maybe off the charts, radical, but as we’ve already talked about, it’s not radical at all. It’s common sense and it’s a way to move the nation’s freight and passengers going forward in a 21st century, rather than having just a handful of corporations make self-serving decisions that is not serving shippers, passengers, workers, communities, the economy or the nation. So I think it’s time that we really give some thought to take the railroads under public ownership.

Max Alvarez:  Sing it, baby. I could hear Ron talk about this for days, but I think that’s so well put. And also a great opportunity to give an important shout out to our siblings across the pond who are fighting a very similar fight as we speak. The RMT, the union representing railroad workers over there in the UK has been fighting tooth and nail against and raising a lot of the same issues. They’re talking about how the passenger service and the freight service have all gone down while prices have gone up and workers are being worked into the ground and everyone’s miserable except the people that in the government and the companies that are able to take advantage of this Frankenstein’s monster arrangement that they have over there.

So we have a real large question as a society to ask. And I think what’s going on in the freight rail system really puts that question into stark relief, which is how can we continue to organize a society based upon these profit-seeking enterprises that can do whatever the hell they want for their own personal enrichment and for building more power for themselves and their buddies while everything we love and hold dear and depend on goes to shit. How much further can we go down that road?

Which is why, again, I emphasize that even if the media’s trying to scare you right now about what a rail shutdown would mean for you and the supply chain, workers on the railroads are really on the front line and taking the last stand as our siblings over there in the UK, not just at the RMT, but the postal workers, the dock workers, everyone fighting against the cost of living crisis, so on and so forth. But workers are the ones who are really fighting for a future worth living in because we see what the future that if we keep going down this road, what the future holds for all of us. And so I want to make sure that we get to Q&A because I can’t see y’all in the live chat right now, but we’re going to be getting your questions. I’m going to be posing them to our amazing panel, so we’re going to get to that in a second.

But I wanted to ask one more question for y’all about other proposals that RWU has put out, other action items that folks can take away from watching this livestream. So I wanted to ask and toss it to the group, if y’all could just say a little bit on top of the proposal to nationalize the rail lines in this country, if you could talk about the ongoing vote no campaign that RWU is working on, and also what folks out there watching and listening again can do in the immediate term to support Railroad Workers United, to support railroad workers in general right now and to prepare for the possibility of a strike in the coming days and weeks.

So I’ll leave that open to whoever wants to hop in and take it.

Ross Grooters:  I’ll jump in real quick unless Jason or somebody else wants to hop in here. But as you said, Railroad Workers United did put out an alert. It basically listed the reasons we believe that we should be looking at voting No. And as we’ve already discussed, the machinists before us, the signal maintainers before us, and the maintenance way workers before us and the non-operating crafts have all voted no. So I think at this point it’s incumbent upon us and the operating crafts that the engineers and conductors to follow in their footsteps and follow this thing through to its fruition.

When we talk about that, I think the big thing that we can do in addition to vote no is get some of that support so that we know we’re not alone. I often hear from coworkers who think that it is rail labor against the world. And as we see on this call tonight with 70 supporting organizations and all of you out there listening to us, we’re not alone. So it is important that folks are brought into this struggle and share their support. There could be pickets, they may be short lived, we just don’t know how that’s going to play out. But I encourage you to look around and see where the rail yards are near you. Chances are, if there’s a strike, there’s going to be a picket there. So that’s one big way to support us. And I know, there’s additional ways that folks in the organization in Railroad Workers United would also share, if others want to jump in here.

Jason Doering:  Yeah, this is Jason Doering. I apologize for being late. I was at my local union meeting. But again, one of the ways I think that would be great for those folks that are wanting to lend a hand in our struggle is to reach out to your members of Congress. I mean, those are the folks right now that…

Max Alvarez:  Oh, wait. Sorry. Jason, I hate to interrupt you. I just want to make sure that folks can hear you since you logged in.

Okay. So, sorry folks. Quick technical note. Jason, could you try hopping out and logging back in real quick? And I’ll tread water until you’re back. Awesome, Thanks man.

Well and Gabe, while we’re waiting, I just wanted to ask if you had any kind of messages to the folks watching now or who are going to watch this later in the week. Just any sort of messages that you have for folks about how they can show support locally, nationally, vocalize support on social media. What helps you all and what can folks do to show solidarity with y’all?

Gabe Christensen:  Max, like you said, if there is a rail strike, there’s terminals all across this country, come down, pick up a sign. I tell people that this isn’t just a railroad workers battle. It’s a blue collar and a union battle. We support our nurses, we support the Amazon workers, we support teachers. We’re all fighting because this isn’t just an isolated thing. This is all industries. They’re trying to squeeze us for as much profits as they can and work us into the ground. We all have to support each other in this fight. You can hop on RWU to get more information, become a solidarity member if you’re not a railroader, if you’re a railroader become a member. We lead the nation with information for our industry. And that’s one thing that really drew me to RWU. But yeah, we need your support. I think Jason was going to talk about getting hold of our politicians and spreading the word that way, but we’re all in this together.

Reece Murtagh:  I’ll jump in there for a second guys. I’m not an RWU official member, but as far as showing support at the picket line, general public swing on by, bring us a beer or two, come hang out with us. We haven’t had a good strike in 30 years, so when one strikes, we all strike. So let’s do this. So I can tell you the machinists have been ready since September 16th. I can tell. But just stop on by. I can say just bring a couple beers, bring some friends, let’s strike.

Max Alvarez:  Hell yeah. And again, to folks watching and listening sometimes, it really is that simple, right? I mean, imagine you are standing on a lonely picket line like over a thousand coal miners who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Deep-Red Alabama since April 1st, 2021. It’s one of the longest running strikes in the country right now. Right wing media hasn’t said shit about them. Mainstream media has barely covered their struggle, and yet they are holding the line. And to Gabe’s point, these are coal miners in Alabama who are going deep under the ground to mine metallurgical coal to make steel. And its largest investor is BlackRock in New York. And so all of the value that workers are creating by risking their bodies and their lives going down into those minds, that’s getting sucked out of the community. That’s going into the pockets of Wall Street assholes in New York.

And while these workers are holding the line, have been doing so for over a year and a half because they want to see their families, they want actual work schedules that allow them to have some semblance of a life outside of work. They want a safe working place, so on and so forth. So from the coal mines in Alabama, to the freight rail lines all across this country, to Starbucks workers who are going on strike because Starbucks is a criminal enterprise that is breaking the law left and right, firing union organizers, retaliating against workers and coming up with BS reasons to say that that’s not what they’re doing, even though we all see it and we all hear it. We got to show up. Show up to those picket lines, donate to those hardship funds, those strike funds. Yes, shouting out support and solidarity on social media is important, but we also need to be there for one another wherever we can, however we can.

Do we have Jason back yet or do I need to…?

Ron Kamikow:  Max, if you want, while we’re waiting for Jason, I’ll just add to this what people can do to act in solidarity with railroad workers. So everybody’s different in terms of the amount of time that you have and your ability to commit. And so there’s a whole lot of small asks. If you support Railroad Workers United, but maybe in your own industry, you’re working 40, 60, 80 hours a week yourself at Amazon or what have you. But you want to support us. Obviously anybody can make a donation at any time and there should be a donate link going into the chat here soon. As Ross said, you can join our organization as a solidarity member. Solidarity members will take anybody as long as you’re not a manager. From different industries, we have longshoreman, truckers, warehouser men and others from different auxiliary industries, bus drivers and so forth. Feel free to join.

It’s only $25. You don’t get a vote, you can’t hold office of course because it’s primarily a railroad workers organization. But we appreciate your solidarity and support. We do have these strikes T-shirts that you see Gabe and Max and myself wearing. They’re $20, they’re available. North American railroad workers will strike if provoked. And while you’re at the store, there’s also all kinds of other swag in terms of vote no stickers, strike stickers, buttons, all sorts of other T-shirts, two person crew support, a whole bunch of stuff. And we don’t make much off of it, but it does, every little bit helps. And the main thing is you’re out there wearing T-shirts and buttons and stickers promoting the railroad workers’ cause.

People like to write. You can write a letter to the editor, your local paper or what have you, talk to your local media for our press release and stuff and sign up for our news alerts. And the easiest way to do that, and that link should go in the chat too, www.railroadworkersunited.org, a popup will come up within the first five seconds. All you got to do is put your email in there and you will now get all the news from Railroad Workers United on a regular basis. So that’s kind of the small stuff, that’s kind of the easy stuff. I don’t want to belittle it, but that’s just small.

As Ross was saying, find out where your railroad guard is now. Don’t wait till the day of the strike. If you live in Memphis or Little Rock or New Orleans or Kansas City, St. Louis, Havre, Montana, Spokane. I mean I can think of all these railroad towns. There’s a railroad yard, maybe two or three. I’ve broke in railroad in Chicago, that was about 30. Find out where the yard is. Find so you know where to go to, if and when you wake up in the morning and the strike is on, you’re prepared. Make yourself a picket line. If you’re a longshoreman, a truck driver, a nurse, an educator. Educators support railroad workers, nurses support railroad workers, have your sign at the ready.

If you don’t use it this time, maybe it’ll be the next contract campaign. So the point here is to be ready for the action if and when it does come. And then, so here’s like the final big ask that I would say, think about organizing a worker solidarity committee in your city, in your community, in your locale that is not just capable of responding to this issue to support railroad workers, but we’re in an interesting period here. And from my study of labor history, it’s kind of akin to 1934-1935, we could see the rebirth of a labor movement in this country.

And what we’re going to need to make that labor movement successful is to have solidarity committees of hundreds and hundreds of workers from different industries in geographical locations who are ready, willing and able to take action, not just on behalf of railroad workers because right now we’re front and center, but this is going to pass at some point. And then who’s the next group? John Deere workers, auto workers, steel workers, we don’t know. Amazon and Starbucks and others. Retail workers, teachers, nurses. And we want to have committees in place that can respond and react as workers engage and struggle. And so that’s kind of the big ask out of this thing is to think in terms, if you’re really a highly motivated worker who really wants to dig in their heels and think about this thing for the long run, give that some thought. We would love to come out of this with different committees all around the country in various towns and cities that are ready to act on behalf of the new labor movement.

Max Alvarez:  Hell yeah. And just to follow up on that, then I’m going to toss it to our girl, Elizabeth, to speak a little more on the importance of that type of solidarity. We’re hoping to get Jason back and hopefully we’ll have him back on for the Q&A, which we’re going to get rolling in a second. But just something I wanted to pick up on that you were mentioning Ron, and that I think Ron, Reece and Gabe respectively also mentioned is that while as we’ve talked about the particularities of the rail system, the craft unions, the railway labor act, a lot of that can make this seem a very, very, very specific issue that you need like a PhD to understand. Part of that is true, but as you have hopefully heard, there’s so many issues that railroad workers are dealing with that workers around the country are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

This is something that has struck me repeatedly doing the coverage I do at The Real News for my show working people, for my segments at breaking points is like, it’s like man, you walk around, you’re hearing on the media and from politicians that no one wants to work anymore, that bosses can’t hire people because people are lazy and they’re living off of government aid or whatever. Then you actually talk to workers and you realize, oh crap, railroad workers are being run into the ground and being forced to run skeleton crews and be on call 24/7.

The dollar store next to me has two people running an entire store and that is by design. Educators across the country are getting piled on with teaching loads that are untenable. The longest nurses strike in Massachusetts State history happened last year at St. Vincent Hospital because longtime nurses were saying, “We can’t maintain the quality of care that we’ve been trained to give with these untenable nurse to patient ratios that our investor owned company that is based in Texas that owns our hospital here in Massachusetts is pushing us to do more with less.” Just like you’re hearing about on the railroads.

This is happening everywhere and it is a crisis that we all need to face together. And I think that that really speaks to the importance of Ron’s suggestion of building these communities, solidarity committees that bring workers together that allow us to have a quick response when our support is needed and so on and so forth. And with that, I want to toss it over to Elizabeth who is I think a model of this kind of solidarity, a true heroin and freedom fighter and just badass all around.

Elizabeth, I want to toss to you to say a little more about solidarity and I know we’ve got some videos that we want to play as well.

Elizabeth Lalasz:  Yeah, thank you so much. This is an incredible panel and thanks Max for moderating it and all the questions. I think it’s been incredible. I just want to say a little bit about solidarity and we’ve got videos that people have sent in. We requested that through the solidarity team that I’m part of to really show support for a struggle that I feel like is so similar to the struggle that I feel like I go through every day, which is fewer and fewer workers doing more and more. And our bosses are making, they’ve made so much money during this pandemic and they want us just to give more. And it’s not possible, it’s not tenable. And this is a particular moment and we saw it starting last year with the strikes that happened at John Deere and at Nabisco and all sorts of strikes that have been going on. The organizing around Amazon, around Starbucks, what’s starting to brew around UPS.

It’s like working people have had enough. We have had enough of the bosses disrespecting us, making lots of money off of our labor and basically saying that they want more from us. And I just feel like that is the moment we’re at, which I think is an incredible moment. And so what Ron talks about and others about the potential to build something around this particular struggle is really critical. I feel like this could send a shockwave across the entire country and we’ve already been having shockwaves and I think we need that change. And that’s the way I look at this struggle.

Even as a nurse in a hospital, I feel like what’s happening on the rail is incredibly important and we have to start to make those connections more. So that’s what some of these solidarity videos are about. I think that’s why 70 plus people co-sponsored and there was a still worker local that sponsored out of near Los Angeles and the… Sorry, ATU local in the Twin Cities just endorsed and sent a generous donation as well as the steel workers. And a letter carrier local here in Chicago did the same. People are feeling it in small ways that we’re beginning to bring these things together but people are feeling similarly across all of the working class.

And so I think it’s really important to make those connections and then it’s beyond that, it’s organizations that labor network for sustainability and others that have been longtime supporters of RWU as well as DSA at the national level. We’ve had so many chapters also of the DSA across the country endorsing and supporting and that’s incredible. So we have something to build here and that’s just, I think, we’re scratching the surface to be honest. And that’s why we need all of you to get involved. Look at the solidarity guide, hoping that’s been dropped in the chat and also sign up for community, solidarity groups to start that now and not wait till the picket lines come up. So with that, we’ve got some videos. When we asked people to send in a minute video and then we can go into the Q&A, because I know people have got questions and we’re starting to see them on our side too, so I don’t want to delay that more. So thank you. And thank you for an incredible panel.

Speaker 6:  Hello to all the railroad workers across the country. I’m representing the Twin Cities’ DSA labor branch and I’m also personally showing up as a nurse and a fellow member of the working class. TCDSA has been following along in a years long fight for a fair contract. We know that you have the right and the power to get every single one of your world deserved demands and we are here to support you in that struggle. TCDSA labor includes workers across many different industries, so our support means cross sector solidarity and not just for today, not just for this fight, but for any time you come up against the bosses. It is only together that we can create real change. In solidarity, the Twin Cities’ DSA labor branch.

Max Golding:  My name is Max Golding and I’m a proud co-founder and active member of the Santa Barbara Tenants Union or SBTU and a member of the DSA Winter Caucus. Myself, SBTU, Winter Caucus and probably thousands of other working class organizations are in solidarity with the railroad workers right now. Railroad workers are responsible for billions of dollars worth of transport of goods per day throughout the country. This means you guys deserve wages, benefits and better working conditions that scale to the very degree of value that you bring to the national economy. It also means you deserve to be recognized as an extremely powerful force to be reckoned with, since if you go on strike, you can bring the entire economy to its knees overnight.

You could very well go on strike to better your lives as railroad workers and I believe you would succeed pretty quickly. But you could also strike to better the lives of every working class person in America at the same time. You could demand universal healthcare, childcare, national rent control, a federal jobs guarantee. The list is endless. I’ll leave it up to you guys on what to decide in your own list of demands on how to get better working conditions as the workers that run the railroads. I also hope that you can think more broadly about solidarity with every working class person in America and throughout the world.

Speaker 7:  From the Upstate New York, regional general membership of the IWW, we send you solidarity greetings and we wish you great success in the struggle that’s so not only symbolic but necessary now as railroad workers face the modern age of the robber barons. Your struggle is just, we support you and we look forward to working with you as we move forward in this great struggle. In the spirit of Debs, let’s get it done in one big industrial union. Good luck everybody. Solidarity it all.

Jasleen:  Hi, my name is Jasleen. I’m the new co-chair of New York City, Democratic Socialist of America. I grew up in a union household. My mother is RW DSU, Local 338 and my father’s part of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. So I know what it means when the bosses are taking advantage of the workers and the workers uprise to take what’s theirs and make sure that every single worker gets to dignify the dignity that they’re guaranteed. I wholeheartedly support the railroad worker strike. I’m so excited for your win and I hope to be on the sidelines there with you fighting for you. Solidarity.

Mate Kudo:  Hi, I’m Mate Kudo.

Ashley Karrigan:  And I’m Ashley Car.

Mate Kudo:  We are labor employees and with New York City Roastery. We’re showing solidarity with Railroad Workers United. A last struggle for one, last struggle for all. We will be going to be striking and we hope that it inspires you, so that you strike too.

Ashley Karrigan:  It’s so worth it. This is a fight that’s really worth it to send everybody your message. Solidarity.

Speaker 8:  Central Indiana Democratic Socialist America show support and solidarity to railroad workers across the United States. Solidarity forever.

Speaker 9:  We’re the Binghamton YDSA and we support the Railroad Workers United.

Jonathan Tate:  Hi, my name is Jonathan Tate and I’m one of the co-chairs of Delaware, Democratic Socialists of America chapter, and I stand in solidarity with railroad workers because I know how demanding the job is. I actually interviewed for a railroad job shortly out of college and I saw how intense and demanding and how tethered your job, those schedules make you, and that’s just not fair. I mean, human beings have the right to take sick days. Human beings have the right to go on vacations and see their families and not miss out on the funerals of loved ones. And I am a believer in human rights for all, and so I will fight for human rights for railroad workers. Solidarity.

Speaker 10:  Greetings from the Socialist Revolution Magazine and the International Marxist Tendency to the railway workers. We know the railway workers are 115,000 strong. You move 40% of the long haul freight in this country. And if the railway workers are united, you have a lot of power. If other workers support you, you have even more power. Your victory will help workers everywhere in this country and abroad. As a united force, the railway workers can defeat the rail bosses, big business, their politicians, their government, and their entire apparatus. Socialist Revolution and the IMT supports your fight. Solidarity with the Railway Workers Union.

Audience:  Solidarity with the Railway Workers Union.

Andrea:  My name is Andrea. I’m a candidate for Chicago City Council. I’m also a rank and file member of the Chicago Teachers Union. And I just want to express my solidarity with the railroad workers in their ongoing fight. You deserve everything you’re asking for. And on top of that, we need you to win it. Railroads move everything else in this country, and across every industry and field today, schools, hospitals, production, freight, we see workers standing up against bosses who don’t care how the job gets done, who don’t care about the quality of what they deliver, all they care about is profit. And because of that, our healthcare, our education, and our economy are falling apart. Workers are the answer. We see the results of our labor and we do care about how the job gets done. All solidarity to railroad workers. Please keep fighting. We’re counting on you.

Brandi McNease:  Hi, my name is Brandi McNease. I’m the co-founder of Chipotle United out of Augusta. And I support railroad workers because they raised me. Railroad workers taught me what solidarity meant in the early nineties when my stepdad went on strike with them. I have always felt at home in the unions and the labor movement that I am participating in now. I’m so excited for us to be able to join forces, to join our voices under our common struggles, and to build the movement as young people coming up care more and more about what’s going on today. Together we have the power, and we can continue to fight until the people who need to listen will stand up and take notice. Solidarity forever.

Max Alvarez:  Oh geez, I didn’t know we were back on. I’m over here tearing up listening to all those messages. Man, I can’t say enough about all of you who sent those messages in. Thank you so, so much. Your love and solidarity is very much felt over here, and I know it is with Ron, Ross, Reece, Gabe, Jason and everyone who is watching right now, and all the railroad workers who can’t be with us.

So we’ve heard enough from me, the yappy moderator tonight. So I want to reserve the next 20 minutes for Q&A where I will be but a humble sort of mediator passing on audience questions to our incredible panel. So if you have questions, please pop them in the live chat on YouTube right now and we will get them over here on this end and I’ll pose them to our amazing panelists.

And just a heads up, the great Jason Doering is with us. We can’t get his video on, but we should be able to hear his audio. So if you hear Jason’s audio responding, just know that he’s here. He hustled his butt off to make it here. As we all know, railroad worker schedules are nuts, so we’re excited that Jason could join us, but you may not be able to see his video.

All right, let’s start with our first audience question, gang, this is from Gary H, who is with United Steel Workers Local 675. They were not able to submit a video, but I do know that Los Angeles oil, chemical and paper workers stand with you now. We look forward to joining your pickets throughout the LA area. So that’s just a beautiful message of support from Gary H. Gary, thank you so much. While we’re waiting for another question, I guess did folks kind of have an… Oh shoot. Nope, we got questions. Sorry. So thank you, Jay. Okay, we got some questions. So Troy asked if there will be picket lines at Amtrak stations.

Ron Kamikow:  Yeah, Max, this is Ron. I’ll just go ahead and answer that as a current Amtrak employee. Basically Amtrak started to shut its network down prior to the potential of a strike September 15th, 16th. It’s highly unlikely that Amtrak will even attempt to operate trains. It’s incredibly dangerous and unsafe if railroad workers in the freight network are on strike. Amtrak is not going to be running trains at 80 miles an hour over the main lines of this country on UP and NS and CSX. And so basically Amtrak workers are willing and in fact obligated to honor picket lines of freight railroad workers, but our trains most likely will not be running on freight railroads if there were to be a strike.

Max Alvarez:  Oh yeah. And let’s see. So kind of two questions that I’m going to smush together. One from Gifford, one from Heidi, both asking about the RLA. Sorry, wanting to ask about secondary boycotts and how that could potentially come into play here. So Gifford asked if we could explain how the RLA allows secondary boycotts, what role that could play in supporting the strike. And Heidi asked also about secondary strikes and whether it’s likely that union leadership would support or even call for such a thing, and what it would take for the rank and file to overcome any bureaucratic obstacles from within their unions to build that support.

Ross Grooters:  These are both great questions and really at the core of what we’re talking about with solidarity, right?

The Railway Labor Act does allow for secondary boycotts. What that means in practical terms is really kind of untested. And I think Heidi hits the nail on the head with will rail leadership call for such a thing? That remains to be seen. But obviously as rank and file workers, we can push our unions from the inside in order to be successful if there is a work stoppage. But the possibilities are endless. If we look around the rooms we’re in, 90% of everything you see, as my friend Gifford Hartman shared with me here recently, there’s a book 90% of Everything, and 90% of everything you see in the room you’re in came at one point on a shipping container into the ports, probably loaded onto a train, before it was eventually manufactured into the things you see in your room. So the possibilities are just so tremendous.

As a teamster myself, I look forward to being able to support UPS workers in their contract struggle and so on and so forth. I think it’s just an endless chain that we can help spread. So it’s really exciting, and I’ll kind of highlight one of the things that Joe Burns, a friend of Railroad Workers United, has told us before. He has a great book about reviving the strike, which I highly recommend, but Joe Burns brings up a quote, “There’s no such thing as an illegal strike. There are successful strikes and there are unsuccessful strikes.” And that’s kind of what it boils down to. And obviously secondary boycotts can be a big tool in the toolkit.

Max Alvarez:  Hell yeah, and I believe it was the great labor scholar and organizer Rebecca Given who said that you don’t need to be in a union to act like one. If you and your coworkers are acting in concert, that’s a union, baby. I mean, obviously there’s more to it, but kind of like what Ross was saying, if all of you march on the boss and say, “We’re not going to work until you put an air conditioner in this god damn place,” what are they going to do?

So I think that is beautifully put, Ross. And a follow up question from Eric Fritz. “Before a strike could happen, will there be leafleting of members of unions who are still voting? Can others help in the vote no campaign?” So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about, I know there have been some informational pickets, if folks on the panel could say a little more about how that information is spreading and what folks watching can do to help if they can. Don’t make me call on someone. I’ll popcorn you guys.

Ron Kamikow:  Well, I’ll jump in, Max. And as far as leafleting goes, it’s unlikely just to be honest that we’re not at that stage. Also, this isn’t 20 years ago. I mean, that’s how I grew up. You went out and leafleted. Now you leaflet online, basically. And so with our pressure campaign and vote no and so forth, we keep spreading the word. Obviously for railroad workers on the call, don’t be shy. Talk to your coworkers, tell them that you’re voting no, and here’s why you’re voting no. The Railroad Workers United Vote No Campaign, well, actually it’s come in two phases. Back in September we issued, and this should all be in the chat too, we issued our original synopsis of why the PEB, any tentative agreement based on the PEB was a concessionary contract and we had 12 reasons why you should vote no.

Then the Biden Walsh broker deal on September 15th, we also feel that that was not really a substantial improvement and in fact could be worse, and we issued a 10 point reason as to why you should vote no. And so for those of you out there on the property who are vehemently opposed to this contract and want to convince your fellow workers, feel free to download those. They’ll be in the chat. And make copies. And you can leaflet, leave them on the locomotives, leave them in the shanties and the yard offices and so forth, put them on the bulletin board until they get torn down. But the point is, we can proselytize for the reasons to vote no. And you don’t want to just say vote no without reasons. We did this on the BNSF in 2014, the BNSF tried to wrangle a single person crew agreement and we did the same thing, 12 reasons why you should vote no, and we voted that contract down by 80%.

So if people have the opportunity to rationally understand why there are reasons to vote no and boost their confidence. There’s a lot of reasons that people will vote yes right now. Christmas is coming, you haven’t had a raise in three years, it’s a real nice lump sum back payment that you’re going to get. The unions are just going to force it down your throat and vote until you get it right. The government’s going to shove it up your butt. There’s all sorts of reasons why people right now are feeling fatalistic and are going to say, “What am I going to do? I might as well just vote yes.” Read our information, look at those 12 initial reasons, look at the 10 reasons specifically geared to the operating crafts. And if you believe that in fact that this contract is not worthy of a yes vote, then have the courage of your convictions and vote no, make copies of those 10, 12 points, hand them out to your coworkers.

Max Alvarez:  Hell yeah, man. And I think that’s a really, really important point that Ron made, because we were in this situation last year, right? The Kellogg strike was happening, the Warrior Met Coal strike was happening and is still happening. The bosses use the threat of winter and cold weather and the holidays coming up. They use that knife and they twist it in the side of workers who are exercising their right and fighting for what they deserve. I mean, we need to be there all the time, but that is a point in the year when we all need to redouble our efforts to support folks. And as we mentioned before, there are a lot of folks out there who desperately need our support, and our job is to bring those struggles together. So if you want folks to support heading into Christmas, go donate to the Warrior Met Coal Strike Pantry.

The Case New Holland workers who have been on strike in Iowa and Wisconsin for six months, they are in desperate need of strike support, find their fundraiser and donate to them, and so on and so forth. So with that, I want to pose a final smoosh question to the panel, and then I’m going to let Elizabeth take us home. But these are two separate questions that I think everyone here will have something to say on. One from Steve was asking about the potential or the strategy to do the one big union thing, Ron, how do we get those craft unions more in sync with one another? How do we get out of the craft union mindset on the railroads and beyond? And then others were asking, like Grant, I think a really pointed question, which was, along with the demands that are being made at the bargaining table, what can this struggle tell us about the demands that working class people all across the board should be making as a class in the workplace and in the political realm?

So from the union side to just a class conscious politics that is based on solidarity, and that can bring folks together, what do you all have to say to the good viewers and listeners in that regard about what we can do, what we should do, and what folks watching can be doing right now?

Reece Murtagh:  I’m going to jump on here first, guys.

Max Alvarez:  Go for it.

Reece Murtagh:  As far as getting the 12 unions into a coalition, if you don’t like what your union’s doing, then run for office and change it. It’s that simple. Run for office, get in there and change it brick by brick. It’s that simple. It’s hard now. It is hard and they make it hard. But if you don’t like it, you have every right and every legal right to get in there and mix it up. Kick up some dust.

Ross Grooters:  And Reece, thank you for that. A hundred percent agree. That would’ve been my answer as well. And I want to highlight, we had the UAWD support us in this call, and a key part of that is one member, one vote in your union. And so that’s one thing you can change from within your union. But yeah, I do think it is going to take us making the demand of union leadership loud and clear.

So many times I hear from coworkers, “This is what we need.” So why is it that leadership is resistant to that? And the simple answer is they want to hold onto their own power. So we need to find ways to take that from them. And again, like Reece said, brick by brick. We heard a lot of great solidarity messages on the call, and just shout out to some of the vision in there. Universal healthcare. How much better off would we be talking about this railroad struggle if we weren’t worried about negotiating whether or not our healthcare costs were going up? Just so many things that we’re capable of doing.

We discussed nationalization earlier in the call. How much more ahead of the game would we be if we were bringing that into bargaining and saying, “Look, you don’t want to do this thing? Well, here’s a solution that you’re really not going to like.” So I think there’s a lot of possibilities there and I’m sure others would love to weigh in.

Ron Kamikow:  Yeah, I would love to, ross. Thanks. It’s a huge question. We are saddled with this antiquated craft union system. It’s killing us. It’s been killing us for 100 plus years, since the days of Eugene, Debs and ARU. So we’re looking back about 130 years.

And so when I hired out with the railroad 26 years ago, I was amazed at how many rank and file workers understood that we shouldn’t have these antiquated craft unions. That there was a basic understanding of solidarity, and it didn’t matter if you were a clerk, a dispatcher, a yard master, an engineer, conductor, switchman, brakeman, track worker, signal maintainer or what have you, we need a railroad workers union. And so I’m not sure how to get there, and I’m not sure what the path to that is. Very, very difficult. But Railroad Workers United ultimately believes that that is a solution that we should be aiming for.

Whether or not that takes the form of the existing trade unions amalgamating into a railroad workers union, whether or not that is like the ARU of 125 years ago where a different organization competes with the craft unions and appeals to the rank and file to say, “Hey, we need a industrial union of all railroad workers,” or exactly what form it takes. This time in bargaining, we were told by our unions that we had something called the United Rail Unions in June. The first time in history that every railroad craft union stood in solidarity in a single coalition with one another. It was an exciting moment, but unfortunately we weren’t privy to the actual details of what that coalition entailed. It was a coalition in name only, because no sooner than the PEB was announced, within weeks or days the machinists broke ranks, the carmen broke ranks, the TCU.

But what was curious, the union leadership did not say anything bad about this. They said it was their right to break ranks. They said this was already predetermined and pre-agreed upon, that it was okay to break ranks. So we didn’t really have a coalition. It was a coalition in name only. And so what railroad workers you need to do going forward for the next round of bargaining is to ensure that if we’re going to have a coalition, which we should, every union should be in lockstep. No union settles until all unions are ready to settle. That’s what a union is. And that’s the kind of coalition we need to build. No more of this flim flam nonsense that every union is free to negotiate, cut its deals, and have me too clauses and all of the rest that undermines our solidarity, that undermines our unity. And so next time we have to be at minimal prepared for a coalition of all unions sticking together, all crafts together. No one settles till all settles. That is at minimum. And then what we really want, of course, is just one big union of all railroad workers.

Gabe Christensen:  And I’ll jump on the political question. I believe it was making political demands to benefit workers as a whole. And it kind of goes to what Reece said, We need to change it brick by brick. We can’t just blindly follow political parties who say they support us, but they don’t show us any action. It’s pretty funny right now, the endless calls for donations, door knocking, all this stuff, but what have they done for us? There’s a handful of politicians that support us and have shown that. Building it back brick by brick, we have union sisters and brothers that have aspirations run for local government or even above. Hey, we need to support them. We need to support workers, union workers, blue collar workers who know our struggles, who are out there and going to support us. And we do that with just community outreach and things like that.

Max Alvarez:  Hell yeah. Well, that’s it for me folks. I’m going to toss it over to Elizabeth. I just wanted to, again, thank you to Railroad Workers United, thank you to Ron, Ross, Reece, Gabe, Jason for hustling and calling in even if we couldn’t get you on. Thank you so much to Haymarket Books, to DSA, to everyone who sent in messages of solidarity to everyone who signed on as a supporting member of this event, including we here at The Real News are going to do our best to push it out there.

But share this as much as you can with folks, like spread the information. We all have a role to play in that regard. And for me over here in Baltimore, just wanted to say again thank you all for letting me be a part of this. I’m sending nothing but love and solidarity to everyone watching, to all our siblings on the railroad, solidarity forever from Baltimore, toss it over to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Lalasz:  Thank you. And thank you for everyone for, I mean, this has just been incredible and really inspiring and informative. I think we’re at, like I said, a moment where things are shifting and they’re changing, and brick by brick. I think their big change is coming, because I think working people in this country are tired of what has been going on and we want significant change.

We also know that this country can’t be run if we don’t work. I think it’s time that what you were all talking about and your fight is going to inspire increasing numbers of people the more we get the word out. And we want to make that something that people, if you can share again the Guide for Solidarity, which is you can check out Railroad Workers United, their news and information list at www.railroadworkersunited.org, and check out the guide, hopefully we’re posting it in the Haymarket Chat on the side, and also about the community solidarity groups. If you want to sign up for one, please do that. But thank you so much. Like Max said, all the love and solidarity from me here in Chicago and all workers across this land. So we stand with you. Thanks.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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