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Here’s How Rail Workers Are Fighting On After Biden Blocked a National Strike

By Jeff Schuhrke - In These Times, January 18, 2023

Politicians may have headed off their strike, but rail workers haven’t stopped organizing for paid sick leave and safe staffing.

While the high-stakes labor dispute on U.S. freight railroads has receded from headlines since President Joe Biden and Congress imposed a new contract last month, rail workers are continuing their fight for dignity and better conditions — albeit without the threat of a national strike on the table.

“The American people should know that while this round of collective bargaining is over, the underlying issues facing the workforce and rail customers remain,” the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department said in a statement.

The major underlying issue remains precision scheduled railroading (PSR), the business model adopted in recent years by Class I rail carriers like Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX. Designed to maximize shareholder profits by cutting costs to the bone, PSR has been blamed for a dramatic reduction in the freight rail workforce, increased supply-chain congestion and deteriorating safety — all while investors rake in record profits.

As a potential railroad strike loomed late last year, the absence of guaranteed paid sick leave in the rail industry came to symbolize the immense strain PSR puts on workers. Without sick leave, and with the railroads implementing draconian attendance policies to deal with understaffing, workers face discipline for missing work due to illness and have to burn through their vacation time if they or their family members get sick. 

The tentative agreement between rail carriers and unions, brokered by Biden last September, did not include any guaranteed sick days — prompting a majority of the union rank and file to vote against ratifying the deal. 

Late last year, when Biden called on Congress to override union democracy and impose the contract anyway, progressive Democrats attached a separate resolution mandating seven paid sick days, without the president’s public support. The measure passed in the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate, where all but six Republicans voted against it. 

“President Biden campaigned on a week of paid sick leave for all working people, and then he had the opportunity right here but didn’t take action. He favored the corporations,” said Matt Weaver, a rail worker and member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) in Ohio. 

Stopping Cop City and Reconnecting with Abundance: Interview with Abundia Alvarado of Mariposas Rebeldes

By Abundia Alvarado and Dan Fischer - New Politics, January 14, 2023

Abundia Alvarado is a community organizer and a co-founder of Mariposas Rebeldes, a member of the movement to protect Weelaunee Forest and Stop Cop City, and a founder of FaunAcción, and El Molcajete. A Nahuatl and Apache trans femme migrant, she is currently based between Atlanta and Tennessee. In Atlanta, she helped launch an annual money-free gift-economy festival called the Dandelion Fest and is working on projects around the idea of the universe as a “Sacred Web of Abundance.” We spoke about Abundia’s life’s philosophy, its roots, and how it has shaped the trajectory of her organizing.

Since the interview was conducted last month, there have been some developments in Atlanta’s grassroots campaign to stop construction of a highly militarized police training facility, nicknamed “Cop City,” on 85 acres of the Weelaunee forest. On December 13 and 14, SWAT teams and police arrested twelve land defenders and six of them were given bogus “domestic terrorism” charges. All six have been bonded out of jail, but readers can contribute to their legal expenses through the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, follow the movement at Scenes from the Atlanta Forest, and organize solidarity events.

You’ve described your childhood surroundings near Monterrey, Mexico, as a “web of abundance”. Could you elaborate on some of the values you picked up in this environment – including from your Nahuatl and Apache family and from the local community as well as the broader ecosystem – which continue to inform your organizing?

I grew up in a neighborhood called Canteras in the outskirts of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, the third largest city and center of the Mexican business and economy, located in the desert land, surrounded by a beautiful web of abundance that saved me from the daily horrible reality of extreme poverty. Canteras was full of different cacti—many of them edible like the nopales which have tunas (prickly pears)—that I collected almost all year round. There were different varieties of chiles, my favorites being the tiny yet potent piquin. For my sweet tooth, there were blackberries, mulberries, and many other desert foods and flowers. So even though we were food insecure at my household, I still ate so well and plentifully. Canteras’s web of abundance (or WoA, for short) was everything to me. I played in it all day, befriended animals and plants, and imagined other worlds outside the neighborhood and its physical and mental constraints. I relentlessly explored every inch of that land and learned something new every day from all the plants, animals, insects, fungi, etc, that were part of that particular WoA. There were a lot of waterways, little waterfalls, and pools to bathe in. It was heaven for a curious and very active little girl (although I didn’t yet identify as a girl outwardly).

This particular land where I was born and grew up was owned by a very rich landowner, but my mother helped organize 120 families to occupy it and settle there. The occupation was successful and the Canteras neighborhood was born.These 120 families were mostly Indigenous people from different parts of Mexico but mainly Nahuatl people like my father’s family. I learned about their cultures and traditions by paying attention to the staples they grew (such as corn, tomatoes, chilis (especially chile piquin), blackberries, mangoes, oranges, peanuts, bananas, and avocados), the way they cooked them and the dishes they made. My neighbors helped each other to grow food and shared the harvests. One value that was instilled in me during these early years was respect for all the plants, ecosystems, and animals, and always being aware of other species’ jurisdictions or territories. Canteras was also the home of many kinds of snakes like the rattlesnakes, copperhead, coralillo and the mysterious (mythical) Alicante snakes. My family was so lucky we never got bitten by a snake even though I encountered them every day in the mountains. I knew where they lived and hung out and was careful not to intrude then. That respect and awareness is something that I carry on with me and that informs my activism around animal rights. Regarding human jurisdictions, I was never good and always transgressed their boundaries.

Statement of Solidarity with Railroad Workers

By Staff - Industrial Worker, December 23, 2022

The Industrial Workers of the World stands with U.S. rank-and-file railroad workers as owners and politicians collude to strip them of their most basic rights. The right to withhold our labor is inviolable and cannot be prohibited. Further, we believe that an injury to one is an injury to all. We are disgusted by the hypocrisy of so-called leaders in the U.S. government, who enjoy the luxury of virtually unlimited paid sick leave while legislating against any paid sick leave at all for railroad workers, and we are unsurprised when even the progressive wing of the Democratic Party ultimately aligns with their class over the workers. IWW members throughout the country are prepared to support railroad workers in every way possible as they lead this fight.

We hold that the failure to reach an agreement is undeniably the fault of the owners, who have enriched themselves and their shareholders at immediate cost to the workers generating the profits. One study of financial reports and internal communications for all the major rail carriers shows their unbridled avarice and total disregard for their workforce. They are well aware that wages have been stagnant for years. This was by design. They know that workers have fled the industry due to its destruction of workers’ quality of life and the carrot-and-stick system that prevents their use of promised benefits. They know that injuries on the job have reached record highs in recent years due to understaffing and impossible demands placed on workers.

The agreement being imposed by Congress is unacceptable. Wage increases to compensate for the lack thereof in years past, as well as skyrocketing inflation and cost of living more recently, are inadequate. Workers have univocally demanded more predictable scheduling and safer working conditions. Paid sick leave was a compromise many workers may have been willing to accept. It is the owners and their lackeys in government who refuse to compromise. It is despicable.

We in the IWW encourage workers from all industries to stand together with railroad workers. United we are strong. Together we can win.

For more information on Railroad Workers United, please contact RWU General Secretary Jason Doering, via email or at 202-480-0587.

For anyone who faces detainment for exercising their right to strike, or who knows someone who does, the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee conducts public pressure campaigns and facilitates empowerment through solidarity. They can be contacted at IWOC@iww.org.

Additional statements of solidarity from members and local branches of the IWW throughout the U.S. are being prepared and issued even as mainstream media declares the “crisis averted.” For workers, the crisis only deepens. These conditions can be changed only when we stand together as one. Workers of the world: unite!

Railroad and UC Workers Solidarity

By Steve Ongerth (with suggestions from Baltimore Red)- IWW Environmental Union Caucus, December 6, 2022

I gave the following speech at a rally on the UC Berkeley Campus (a video of the rally follows)

Fellow Workers, Comrades, and Friends:

My name is Steve Ongerth. I am a union mariner of over a quarter century (I am a member of the IBU, an ILWU affiliate, and the IWW); I grew up in a railroad family, and I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1994.

I am here today to deliver a message on behalf of Railroad Workers United (of which I am a solidarity member):

The Class One freight railroad bosses:

  • Have been reaping record profits for 25 years, and yet...
  • they are moving less freight than at any time since 2006;
  • they are swimming in money, while industry is contracting when it should be expanding due to its efficiency, and its potential as a major climate solution;
  • meanwhile, during that time, 30% of workforce has been lost in the last 4-5 years;
  • in spite of the potential for rail as a climate solution, the freight bosses are hostile to expansion of passenger trains;
  • in fact, the greed of the capitalist railroad bosses has grown so egregious, that the Class Ones have possessed off every major shipping group with their BS, thus even turning much of the capitalist class against them;

The "deal" brokered by Biden and rammed down the throats of the working class by the Republicans and Democrats alike won't solve the problem.

This is not only naked class war, it's a recipe for the complete implosion and meltdown of the nation's rail system.

Science Against Capitalism: Geochemistry and Solar Communism

Major Strike Looms as Largest Rail Union in US Rejects White House-Brokered Contract

By Jake Johnson - Common Dreams, November 21, 2022

"It's about attendance policies, sick time, fatigue, and the lack of family time," said one union official. "A lot of these things that cannot be seen but are felt by our membership. It's destroying their livelihoods."

The largest railroad workers union in the United States announced Monday that its members voted to reject a contract negotiated with the help of the Biden White House, once again raising the prospect of a major strike or lockout as employees revolt over profitable rail giants' refusal to provide adequate paid sick leave.

The Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) said in a statement that just over 50% of its members voted to reject the proposed contract. Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)--the second-largest rail union in the U.S.--voted to ratify the contract, the union said Monday.

If any of the rail unions decide to strike, the others have vowed to honor their picket lines. SMART-TD said a strike or lockout could begin as soon as December 9.

"SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it's now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members," said Jeremy Ferguson, the union's president. "This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people."

"The ball is now in the railroads' court. Let's see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table," Ferguson added. "But, the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them."

Railroad Workers United Supports Public Ownership of the Rails

By Railroad Workers United - Railroad Workers United, October 5, 2022

More than a decade ago at the 2012 Convention of Railroad Workers United, the question of railroad ownership first came before those members assembled. Since that time the organization has discussed and debated whether or not to take a position on the question. In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, the RWU Steering Committee voted unanimously at the October monthly meeting to adopt such a position (see Resolution below).

While the rail industry has been incapable of expansion in the last generation, while it has become more and more fixated on the operating ratio to the detriment of all other metrics of success, Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has escalated this irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers. On-time performance is in the toilet, shipper complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The ongoing debacle in national contract bargaining sees the carriers – after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios – refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who – contrary to what the Class Ones may state – have made them their riches.

Since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure – like the other transport modes – to be brought under public ownership. During WWI, the railroads in the U.S. were in fact temporarily placed under public ownership and control. All rail workers of all crafts and unions supported (unsuccessfully) keeping them in public hands once the war ended, and voted overwhelmingly to keep them in public hands. Perhaps it is time once again to put an end to the profiteering, pillaging, and irresponsibility of the Class One carriers. Railroad workers are in a historic position to take the lead and push for a new fresh beginning for a vibrant and expanding, innovative and creative national rail industry to properly handle the nation’s freight and passengers.

Please, read the full text of the Resolution below, along with the supporting information. And if you wish to take part in the movement to bring the railroads under public control, please contact RWU at info@railroadworkersunited.org

Homoploutia or why the traditional division between capitalists and labourers is less relevant today

By Branko Milanović - European Trade Union Institute, October 4, 2022

Web Editor's Note:: in spite of the confusing title, the speaker is anti-capitalist, and is trying to show how complicated class formation is under current objective conditions.

The talk, based on Branko Milanović’s recent book "Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World", will discuss and analyze systemic inequalities in liberal capitalist societies with the special emphasis on the phenomenon of homoploutia, that is, of high incomes from both labor and capital received by the same persons. Homoploutia is one of the key defining characteristics of modern capitalism, distinguishing it from its classical version. It is a desirable development because it reduces class-based distinctions, but it also encourages the formation of an elite that is more stable (thanks to its diversification of assets, including skills) and able to transfer these advantages across generations.

Defending the Atlanta Forest: Behind the Movement to Stop Cop City

How the Rich REALLY Cause Climate Change

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