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What Casey Jones Tells Us about the Past and Present of America's Railroad Workers

By Scott Huffard - History News Network, September 18, 2022

With a potential railroad strike in the news, Americans are learning quite a bit about the poor working conditions on the freight railroads that keep this country running. Railroad workers threatening to strike have complained about poor pay, dangerous working conditions, and punitive attendance policies. If Americans think about the stereotypical railroad engineer, perhaps Casey Jones comes to mind. Casey Jones, who crashes to his doom in a famous song from the Grateful Dead, a folk ballad, vaudeville hit, and countless parodies, has become the almost universal stand-in for a railroad worker in American culture. Yet despite a haze of mythology, there was a real Casey jones, and his work life tells us much about railroad work in the past and present.

As Casey Jones songs spread around the nation, engineers and their friends from across the country claimed to be the “real” Casey Jones, a fact that tells us just how universal his experience was. But most folklorists find John Luther Jones, an Illinois Central engineer who died in a 1900 train wreck near Vaughan, Mississippi, to be the most credible of these claims. While we do not know all that much about his life, we do know what it was like to be an engineer for the Illinois Central, and the story of the real Casey Jones reminds us that there is nothing new about the grievances of modern rail workers.

Global Climate Jobs Conference: Strategic Orientation

“30 Years in the Making”: U.S. Rail Strike Averted by Tentative Deal as Workers Decry Grueling Conditions

The Looming Rail Strike Was Years in the Making

By Noah Lanard - Mother Jones, September 14, 2022

Workers are fed up with the cost-cutting and layoffs that have left them unable to care for themselves and their families.

Rail workers across the country may be on the verge of going on strike for the first time in three decades—a decision that would immediately cripple supply chains and cause billions in economic losses per day. Workers could walk off the job, or companies could lock them out, as soon as Friday if a deal isn’t reached. 

The dispute is not about pay, but the day-to-day indignities of working in the industry. Rail workers often don’t have weekends, get no sick days, and say that taking the time to care for themselves and their families can lead to being fired. As engineer Ross Grooters puts it, workers are “just fighting for the basic right to be able to be people outside of the railroad.”

The White House has been scrambling to try to avoid a strike that would upend the country’s economy in the lead-up to the midterm elections, and President Joe Biden has been in touch with unions and railroad companies, Politico reports. A shutdown could disrupt shipments of everything from coal and lumber to food and the chlorine used to treat wastewater. Amtrak trains that rely on freight carriers’ tracks are already being canceled.

Failing to reach a deal by Friday does not guarantee a strike, since both sides could agree to extend negotiations. But administration officials are developing contingency plans to try to keep essential goods moving in the event of a shutdown, an outcome that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said is “not acceptable.”

Unionized workers and rail companies have been in contract negotiations for more than two years. In July, Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board tasked with providing recommendations on how to end the dispute. Last month, the board proposed pay increases of 24 percent over five years, additional bonuses, and one extra personal day a year. It also called for lifting a cap on workers’ health care premiums, and did not back workers’ calls for sick days and less-punitive attendance policies.

XR UK position on Strike Action

By staff - Extinction Rebellion UK, August 25, 2022

The cost of living crisis is escalating week on week, the movement to refuse to pay energy bills is gaining momentum and workers from an increasing range of industries are voting to take strike action for livable wages and secure jobs. Railway and tube staff, bus drivers, communications workers, warehouse workers and postal workers are among those striking or staging protests in recent weeks. 

At the same time the UK just recorded it’s hottest ever temperature and Extinction Rebellion is seeing a spike in interest from people who have decided now is the time to step-up and take action – over 1000 people registered for our last Open Call and the ‘Welcome to XR’ sessions have seen a significant increase in attendees. 

In this context we need to speak clearly about the common interests of striking workers and the environmental movement.

Support for rail strikes from Just Transition Partnership

By staff - Just Transition Partnership, August 18, 2022

The Just Transition Partnership sends solidarity to RMT, TSSA and ASLEF members taking industrial action to protect their pay, jobs and working conditions, and in the wider fight for a sustainable public transport system run for people and the planet, not private greed. Billions are being cut from our transport system at a time when increasing investment is vital to ensure a fully public, affordable, integrated and sustainable transport system.

Our railways are already being impacted by the effects of climate change, putting additional demands on a stretched workforce providing an essential public service. We need a well-paid transport workforce with secure conditions and it is indefensible to expect transport and other workers to take an effective pay cut as inflation and the costs of energy rise, especially while the profits of oil companies soar.

The UK government is failing on the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis. It has no integrated transport plans, favouring private companies which make vast profits rather than making transport affordable and our air breathable; in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK train and bus services are being cut. These actions are symptomatic of disregard for the concerns of climate, environment and workers.

The solutions to these crises have the same foundations – public investment into decarbonised and high-quality services using both taxation and legal duties on private companies; all delivered by a well-paid, skilled and secure workforce. These things won’t happen without workers in their trade unions organising to defend their wages, their jobs, their future and their rights through the power of collective bargaining. The workers movement and the climate justice movement need to build our collective power if we are to defend our future, that is why we send our solidarity to the workers on strike.

Mick Lynch on the Rail Strikes and Climate Crisis

TSSA calls for public transport fares to be slashed; let’s all do the same!

By Paul Atkin - Greener Jobs Alliance, August 4, 2022

TSSA calls for public transport fares to be slashed – let’s all do the same!

In a sharply worded blog on the TSSA web site, General Secretary Manuel Cortes notes that we have to deal with

two crises running in parallel – the climate … heating up at an unprecedented rate leading to increased extreme weather disasters and …an ever-deepening Tory cost of living crisis, inflation and costs are up, but wages are stagnant

and calls for a sharp cut in public transport fares to reduce costs, fossil fuel use and pollution. 

It’s Time We Listen to Transit Operators

By Amy Thomson - StreetBblog SF, August 3, 2022

Transit Operators Are the Backbone to Our Region’s Infrastructure. It’s Time We Act Like It.

On her day off last week, one bus driver* took time away from her daughters to tell me about her shift the night before. As regular riders boarded, she was sure to tell each of them that she was on vacation tomorrow and her shift had not yet been covered. In other words, don’t expect this bus to show up.

Transit operators are an integral part of making California affordable. Transportation is the second-highest expense after housing, and driving is both the most expensive transportation option and a top source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Giving Californians frequent, reliable, and accessible transportation alternatives is only possible with transit operators, but there’s a national shortage. A new report by the Transit Center outlines the crisis, finding that 117 transit agencies cut service due to worker shortages, with bus operator positions hardest hit.

LA Metro and the SFMTA are reducing service to manage staffing shortages. Reduced service and staff leaves riders stranded or delayed — which disproportionately affects BIPOC residents who make up a majority of transit ridership. Frequency also attracts riders. When VTA increased its service last fall, more frequent routes saw higher ridership increases.

I spoke with operators who work for Bay Area transit agencies who are working longer shifts, missing time with their families, and dealing with angry customers after missed buses. Here’s how they would solve the staffing crisis and make the job more attractive:

London IWW Statement of Solidarity with UK Rail Workers

By branch - London IWW, August 1, 2022

The London Branch of the IWW stands with the rail workers in their ongoing dispute. They are fighting not just for themselves, but for us all: as well as their livelihoods, the safety standards of the British rail network are under threat. The government-backed rail operators are attempting to reduce staffing levels on platforms, trains, and tracks in order to drive down wages, which they see simply as an overhead cost. Further, they intend to rehire many workers on zero-hours agency contracts in order to circumnavigate labour rights such as paid leave for holiday, sickness, and parenthood as well as allowing them to dismiss workers without notice or redundancy pay.

The transport industry is one of the few remaining industries in Britain with high union membership. This attempt to break it up by dividing the workforce is a direct attempt to weaken the unions, and the labour movement as a whole.

On top of it all, comes a slap in the face: during this period of exaggerated cost of living, and while the shareholders take home millions in profit, they are offering the workers that they aren’t trying to sack a real-terms pay cut.

However, the workers are standing strong: in the face of an endless torrent of vitriol from the British government and press, they are taking every opportunity to expose the inequalities and injustice that they face. Members of our branch have been proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with these workers on the picket lines, and we will continue to offer our support until the dispute is won. As long as we continue to stand together, we can tip the balance in the favour of workers around the world.

Mutual aid is the currency of solidarity; direct support for the striking worker is crucial to their success. As such, the IWW London branch are setting a budget to allow members to donate food and drinks to workers on the picket lines, and we encourage any members or supporters with the means to make a donation to the strike funds.

The momentum of the union movement is growing once again in Britain after half a century of targeted assault. Public support is on the rise, and workers in unions across the country are balloting to take action and stand up for their rights and their dignity. The doubling-down on anti-union rhetoric by the government and press is evidence that they are aware of the power that a unionised workforce wields, and that they are threatened by it.

The IWW welcomes any and all workers both in and out of employment and of any nation, race, gender, or creed. Together we stand for a fairer world.

Solidarity forever.


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