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SMART Railroad Workers Rejection of Single Employee Crews is a Victory for Workers AND the Environment

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 14, 2014

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’s.

On Tuesday, September 10, 2014, the rank and file union members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers (SMART) General Committee GO—001 overwhelmingly voted down a concessionary proposal to reduce train crew size from 2 to 1 by a margin of 2 to 1 against the proposal.

The proposed change would have resulted in conductorless train operations over more than half of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), the second largest rail carrier in the U.S. According to Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank and file union members from various railroad workers' unions, this was part of a campaign by the major rail carriers to weaken the already weak and divided rail unions further. Over the past half-century, the railroad bosses have taken advantage of the craft divisions among their workers to reduce crew sizes from a standard of 5 to 2. Now they're pushing to reduce that number to 1. The fact that BNSF was able to convince the leadership of one local to go along shows just how beaten down these unions are.

Fortunately, rank and file militants--some of them dues paying members of the IWW--formed RWU to beat back just such an offensive by the bosses, and--perhaps--turn the tide in what has hitherto been a one-sided class war waged against the workers by the bosses.

The RWU strategy mixed a whole variety of tactics, both old (including "silent agitators" and graffiti) and new (social media), many of them pioneered by the IWW:

Upon learning of the BNSF TA, RWU convened an “emergency meeting” of the Steering Committee and instantly mobilized the network. Thousands of buttons and sticker, flyers and leaflets, “Talking Points” and more were disseminated to BNSF railroad workers in the following weeks. A press release was issued that was picked up by a number of newspapers. RWU members spoke out on radio and TV stations, and organized rallies, pickets and demonstrations at numerous terminals, from large cities like Chicago and Seattle to small towns like Creston, Iowa. RWU members intervened in the debate at the SMART Convention in August, and held a series of telephone conference calls open to all railroad workers to voice their concerns, ask questions, and devise strategies and tactics. A regular e-newsletter with the latest flyers, leaflets, stickers, articles, songs, graffiti and cartoons were issued weekly.

In the end, the workers beat back the bosses attack, and this campaign should provide (the beginnings, at least, of) a model for rank and file workers in business unions to overcome entrenched bureaucratic interests that serve the bosses and not the workers. It can also serve as a model for the IWW's "dual card" strategy.

The vote was also a small victory for the environment and efforts to build bridges between environmental activists and workers. As has been widely reported, the accident that blew up Lac Magentic was the result of a single employee train, and while derailments involving two employee crude-by-rail trains have occurred, the chances of them happening are substantially greater if the crew size were to be reduced to one. Further, the push to reduce crew sizes is part of the ongoing efforts by the rail carriers to maximize their profits by cutting corners on labor costs, safety procedures, and best practices. The workers' victory will likely embolden them to take stronger stands against other initiatives by the bosses that would increase the risk of accident or derailment, and should the workers gain sufficient momentum, they can actually go on the offensive and force the carriers to increase safety, which will reduce environmental impacts significantly.

Some environmentalists understand the significance of crew size relative to the dangers of crude-by-rail, and no doubt some of the work done by the IWW EUC played a role in helping frame the issue. 350 Seattle  issued a resolution in solidarity with the railroad workers opposing the crew reductions, and the Rising Tide activists who organized the recent blockade of a crude-by-rail train in Everett, Washington made it a point to link their opposition to crude by rail to workers' safety by mentioning both issues in their press release, and having a sign which read, "cut oil trains, not conductors". This is exactly the type of solidarity that the green movement needs to forge with the labor movement in order to counter their common adversary.

And a common adversary it is. The same interests which seek to promote continued burning of fossil fuels and holding back cleaner, renewable alternatives are ones who seek to bust unions and erode labor law: the capitalist class, led by the likes of the Koch Brothers. They no doubt hoped for the proposed reduction in crew size to be approved by the union. A defeat for the Koch Brothers is a win for the 99%.

That said, this is only one small victory, in one battle, on the overall class war. There is still much work to do.

To begin with, there's no reason why the rail carriers won't try to push for reductions in crew size once again. There are any number of ways they can do that, including weakening the unions to the point that the latter have little choice but to accept the reductions. They could also try and sneak it in as a hidden "poison pill" buried in some contract clause in hurried negotiations in hopes that rank and file members fail to notice. They could try and lobby the government to declare railroad unions illegal and simply force workers to accept such conditions.

Sure, RWU stands in the way of these efforts, but RWU is relatively new and largely untested. They experienced substantial growth from this struggle, but the newer members are less seasoned, and not yet as radicalized by direct struggle as the leaders and veteran members. The bosses could try and make alliances with less experienced, more conservative, more easily led newer members and encourage the latter to try and unseat the current leadership. The bosses engaged in similar machinations in the CIO during the 1950s, making alliances with rightist elements in that union federation against the class struggle left. There's no reason to believe that they won't try this again in the RWU

The union officials could--following a familiar pattern in the AFL-CIO building trades--simply decide to recast the vote, "until the members get it right" (i.e. go along with the wishes of capital). Such occurrences are actually a lot more common than people realize, but all too familiar accounts relayed by frustrated rank and file union militants in the pages of Labor Notes and Union Democracy Review.

The connections attempted between environmentalists and RWU members are still very tenuous. Although some of the militant movers and shakers within the RWU are the strongest advocates for a green-labor connection and recognize the big picture, that the two movements are actually two columns of the same movement, many of the newcomers to the RWU Facebook group (who may or may not be dues paying RWU members) are not ready to accept that the two issues are interrelated. Some threatened to lave the group if the latter continued to get distracted by "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs", while at least one member of the group argued that global warming was a hoax, and parroted a right wing pseudoscientific climate change denial funded "study" that falsely shows that the polar ice caps are increasing in volume as "evidence". Finally, the same union, SMART, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and the mining of Alberta tar sands.

Furthermore, many environmental groups, including most of the direct-action oriented radical environmental groups, have yet to acknowledge the connection between railroad crew size and the campaign against crude-by-rail. In most cases, that's probably due to the connection not yet having been made, but it's entirely possible that some of the environmental groups simply do not see the connection, or find workers' issues irrelevant. Doing so is a tactical mistake. We're stronger together than apart.

Obviously there's a long way to go before we can really claim to be winning the war, but at the very least, the results of the vote still represent a huge accomplishment. Folks looking for a way out of our current ecocidal capitalist nightmare can look to the campaign waged by Railroad Workers United for guidance and inspiration. Let this be the first of many such victories!