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Railroad Nationalization Must Be Part of the Green New Deal

By Mayor Seidel - Sewer Socialists, February 5, 2023

In December, Congress and the Biden Administration forced a deal on railroad workers and stripped them of their right to strike. This made two things clear: how draconian the private freight railroads are to their workers, and yet how essential they are to the functioning of the country. Equally, private railroads are not only essential to the economy, but to the climate. Transportation is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, including electricity generation. Within transportation, among the modes primarily used for freight (trucks, rail, and boats), railroads were responsible for only 7% of emissions despite carrying 27% of cargo (in ton-miles). Despite being a net reducer of emissions by taking trucks off the roads, the private railroads are avowed enemies of climate action. Afraid of losing their lucrative coal-hauling traffic, the same four railroads who Congress acted on behalf of have spent millions to lobby against climate action and deny climate change. Capitalists who bankroll climate deniers own the most important system of low-carbon infrastructure on the continent.

The effects of the existing freight railroads on climate change, both good and ill, are minuscule compared to the unrealized potential that they hold. The railroads would have a higher share of freight traffic if not for the shortsighted management of their private ownership. Additionally, 57% of transportation emissions come from “light duty vehicles,” i.e. passenger cars. The strongest opportunities to eliminate car trips are in urban centers, by building inviting pedestrian spaces, safe bicycle infrastructure and robust public transit networks. At the same time, to build a credible alternative to automobile travel, these green transportation systems must be connected to one another into metropolitan and intercity rail networks. This cannot be done without the infrastructure that, outside the Northeast, is controlled by the private freight railroads.

The private railroads are hostile to passenger service, which they see as a threat to their freight operations. Amtrak publishes a “report card” each year, ranking the private freight railroads by how much they delayed passenger trains. In 2021, at least 20% of riders were delayed on more than half of state-supported routes and 14 of 15 long-distance routes. The private railroads even hold back some commuter railroad services. Several Metra lines serving suburban Chicagoland are operated under “purchase-of-service” agreements with freight railroads, leaving commuters at the mercy of their private owners. Newer systems like Virginia’s VRE that use private freight corridors must negotiate complicated and expensive agreements with host railroads to expand service. Confronting climate change must include rationalizing the relationship between freight and passenger rail service, both of which are essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In private hands, the freight railroads oppress their workers, risk the survival of the economy for short-term profits, and stand in the way of decisive climate action. The alternative is clear: nationalization. Railroad Workers United (RWU), a rank-and-file caucus of railroad workers, reached that conclusion in the course of their organizing work. In October of 2022, at their annual conference, RWU adopted a resolution urging public ownership of the railroads. Since then, nationalization is gaining steam. The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) also recently demanded public ownership. In These Times is running a cover story about nationalization. Nationalization would address the labor, economic, and climate issues with the freight railroads remaining in private hands. With elected officials responsible for the oversight of the railroad system from the start, rather than intervening on behalf of private management at the 11th hour, the incentives for negotiating with labor in good faith would be stronger. As service has deteriorated, private railroads have spent $196 billion in dividends and stock buybacks since 2010, compared to $150 billion in maintaining their systems. With both passenger and freight rail in public hands, nationalization of rail infrastructure makes rationalization of rail service possible.

Whether by nationalization or some other program, workers are ready for a new approach. Union members at one major railroad union unseated their president in the wake of the recent contract negotiations. In Railroad Workers United’s resolution, they call on “labor unions, environmental and community groups, social justice organizations, and rail advocacy groups, and others” to join their demand for public ownership. While railroad workers and transportation advocates are the likely leaders of any nationalization effort, RWU’s call clearly includes organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), especially its Green New Deal priority campaign. As a possible strike approached, DSA’s statement in solidarity with railroad workers included an aside to nationalization with a link to RWU’s resolution. However, the DSA statement following the Congressional strikebreaking vote was a missed opportunity to call for nationalization. In the wake of such a blatant reminder that essential infrastructure remains in private hands, DSA must build relationships with labor, environmental, and social justice groups to establish a railroad nationalization coalition.

While nationalization may seem like a distant goal, history suggests that it is closer than we think. Previous nationalizations were preceded by periods of crisis, whether in the railroad industry or more generally. On four occasions, the federal government has stepped in to take over key railroad services in the national interest. Each of these historic nationalizations modernized the industry to standards that endured for decades. At the same time, federal action was limited by the unwillingness of elected officials to embrace permanent nationalization in the public interest, instead focusing on temporary goals like winning wars and restoring profitability. In the Civil War, the Union Army destroyed Southern railroads and built new lines to standard gauge, helping to win the war. This also set off the standardization of the various track gauges built by fragmented private railroads in the antebellum period, and ensured a common standard that prevails today. In World War I, nationalized operation of the various private railroads produced standardized designs of steam locomotives that were used until dieselization. In the railroad crisis of the 1970s, the federal government used nationalization to restore profitability to flailing private railroads. By creating Amtrak, the federal government not only freed the private railroads from their obligation to provide intercity passenger service, it also consolidated various lines into the Northeast Corridor, which, though still in need of over $100 billion in modernization, provides by far the best passenger railroad service on the continent. In the most instructive example, Congress created Conrail by nationalizing the Penn Central and other bankrupt Eastern railroads, and the federal government owned an independently managed freight railroad for over a decade. While Conrail was successful at restoring profitability, it did so through ruthless austerity. Once this was achieved, it was abruptly sold in an initial public offering, and later dismembered by two of the same private freight railroads that refuse to grant their workers sick days. Material conditions have made nationalization necessary in the past, and likely will again.

Private mismanagement has once more made the railroad industry fragile to shocks, as the pandemic and the recent contract negotiations have demonstrated. Railroad bosses’ refusal to give workers sick leave is only the most dramatic example of an industry that has been pushing workers to the brink for years. Despite overwork of their labor force and irresponsible stewardship of their infrastructure, private railroads remain essential to the economy. The capitalist class demanded no interruption to freight rail service, in the form of an open letter to Congress signed by over 400 trade groups. The country cannot function without the freight railroads, and the freight railroads can barely function under private management. It is only a matter of time before a crisis puts nationalization back on the table. The question is whether socialists and labor will build a coalition strong enough to challenge railroad bosses in the halls of Congress, or if the resolution of the next crisis will once again be dictated by capital. DSA must be ready to do its part when the day comes.

The next step for DSA is to incorporate railroad nationalization into our coalition work so that it becomes a consensus plank in the platform for a Green New Deal. The DSA’s approach to the Green New Deal is to align labor with social and environmental justice against dirty capital, and there are few targets in that struggle as high-value as the private freight railroads. Railroad workers would be able to bargain with management that answers to elected officials rather than private capital. Transportation advocates would be able to demand passenger transit on a nationwide network that can ignore car traffic, rather than just fighting for space on crowded roads. Climate advocates would be able to influence an agency that is to transportation on a transcontinental scale what the Tennessee Valley Authority is to energy in one small region. In working with each of these organizations on their various struggles, socialists can help unite them around the conviction that a better world is possible. With each of these organizations united in demanding nationalization, the next industry crisis is an opportunity to reimagine the railroad system in the public interest. Whether by rebuilding local freight to be more competitive with trucks, modernizing commuter rail to provide equitable urban-suburban service, or establishing a construction authority for nationwide high-speed rail, nationalization makes major infrastructure changes possible that are currently out of reach. Justice for rail workers, prosperity for rail users, and a future beyond climate change all demand that we seize the railroads from private hands. DSA must help to build that coalition now.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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