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A Railroad Worker Strike Could Shake the Economy’s Foundations

By Paul Prescod - Jacobin, August 2, 2022

Once a coveted job, conditions for railroad workers have badly deteriorated. But railroad workers are central to our economy — so central that a current impasse between railroad companies and associated unions has prompted Joe Biden to intervene.

Six months ago, the spouses of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation (BNSF) employees detailed the toll the job was taking on their families. A letter containing twenty-five of their stories portrays a climate where workers find it impossible to maintain a personal life.

Nichole Bischoff, who has taken the lead in organizing railroad worker spouses, said to a local news outlet, “So many parents wanna be at every trick-or-treating event, every school function, baseball game and they just can’t, and our kids learn to live with it.”

“My husband can’t even attend any of his appointments,” one anonymous spouse complained. “He has already gotten dropped from a couple [health care] providers for poor compliance.”

Now conditions for railroad workers are poised to take center stage nationally. On Friday, July 15, President Joe Biden intervened in a labor dispute that could have a dramatic impact on the nation’s economy. Contract negotiations between the major freight railroad companies and their associated unions, representing 115,000 railway workers, have reached an impasse. Utilizing the procedures of the Railway Labor Act, the president stepped in to form a presidential emergency board that will hold hearings and issue recommendations during a thirty-day “cooling-off” period.

But there are no guarantees that this mediation will produce a settlement, as railworkers have been pushed to the brink by decades of brutal corporate cost-cutting measures.

What If Rail Workers Struck? A Talk with RWU

Blockade Australia: Our Perspective

By staff - Black Flag Sidney, July 27, 2022

Blockade Australia (BA) is a climate activist group whose primary strategy is to shut down activity at fossil fuel sites and disrupt the economy as a form of protest. So far, they have coordinated two major blockades in NSW: in November 2021, they disrupted $60 million worth of coal exports for eleven days in the Port of Newcastle; in March 2022, activists blockaded terminals for five days at Port Botany; at the end of June, they attempted a six-day blockade of Sydney’s economic centre.

Their activism has been met with alarming state violence. Earlier this month, around one hundred police raided a BA camp of activists and made several arrests. The Port Botany blockade earlier this year triggered the bipartisan enactment of new laws in NSW Parliament, increasing the penalty for protesting without police or state approval to up to $22,000 in fines and/or two years’ imprisonment. These laws will affect all protests which are unapproved by police, and should be fiercely opposed.

BA doesn’t formally adhere to a specific political ideology, although their social media activity suggests anti-capitalist and anti-electoral leanings. They aim to create a “consistent and strategic” disruption “that cannot be ignored,” to temporarily shut down the fossil fuel industry’s operation and force a “political response,” though BA does not define what this would look like concretely.

Overall, BA’s strategy relies on small affinity groups rather than a political organisation to coordinate individual non-violent disruptive stunts, a strategy which places them outside of the mass movement for working class liberation. It’s important to note here that we condemn in the strongest terms the state violence against BA activists. We express our solidarity to activists who, like us, are interested in building “power… opposing the colonial and extractive systems of Australia.” We argue, though, that BA cannot build this power with isolated actions and sporadic disruption alone.

U.S. Railroad Workers Inch Closer to a Possible National Strike

By Jeff Schuhrke - In These Times, July 25, 2022

After Biden appointed an emergency board to help resolve the labor dispute, rail workers warn: “We have the ability to stop the trains from moving.”

After waiting over two years to secure a new union contract, and still reeling from the impacts of Wall Street-ordered cost-cutting measures, 115,000 beleaguered workers who operate the nation’s freight railroads are inching closer towards a possible strike, which could come as soon as September. 

In an effort to drive down operating expenses and reward their wealthy shareholders, in recent years railroad companies have implemented ​“precision scheduled railroading,” or PSR — a version of just-in-time, lean production that centers on reducing the workforce and closing facilities. 

“For years, they cut and cut and cut. It didn’t matter which department or terminal, it was indiscriminate,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based locomotive engineer with Union Pacific.

Over the past six years, the major Class I railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have slashed their collective workforce by 29 percent (around 45,000 workers), leaving the industry woefully understaffed and putting extra strain on workers already accustomed to long, irregular hours. 

Lindsey said the severe staffing shortages have resulted in ​“constant chaos and crisis,” with workers being called at all hours, day and night, expected to take on assignments they were not initially scheduled for. 

Cost-cutting has also meant freight trains are running with more cars and more cargo than existing infrastructure is equipped to handle, or else misrouting rail cars just to get them moving. This cost-cutting, along with a labor shortage, have been major contributors to the supply-chain crisis. 

Meanwhile, the railroad companies remain highly profitable, with owners raking in $183 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010.

Prof. Ahmed White on the Industrial Workers of the World

“We Want Everything”: A Four-Day Work Week

By Samantha O’Brien - Rupture, June 9, 2022

“It’s not fair, living this shitty life, the workers said in meetings, in groups at the gates. All the stuff, all the wealth that we make is ours. Enough. We can’t stand it any more, we can’t just be stuff too, goods to be sold. Vogliamo tutto - We want everything”

- Nanni Balestrin

Labour Power

The four-day work week has captivated media headlines internationally, with different countries piloting programmes in the Global North. Seventeen companies have signed up to commit to a pilot programme in Ireland. Thirty companies in the UK are taking part in a new pilot. Workers will maintain one-hundred per cent productivity for eighty per cent of their time.[1] Belgium has given workers the right to request a four-day work week with no loss of pay, effectively condensing their five day work week into four days. This has rightfully attracted criticism, as working time has not reduced, but workers get to maximise their stress levels by working nine and a half hours per day.[2] The central theme of many global campaigns is that the implementation will look different in varying sectors, rosters and working arrangements. The campaign’s main aim is for a shorter working week with no loss of pay and challenging the dominant narrative that long hours equate with greater productivity.[3]

The key demand of socialists has long been a shorter working week with no loss of pay. Karl Marx in Capital describes how the hours that make up the working day mean different things to employees and employers. Workers put in their time to afford the basic necessities in life. Employers buy labour-power, and the value is determined by working time. Any labour-power beyond what is required to produce the necessities of life is surplus-value that employers get for free. It is not necessary for us to work long hours to produce what is needed, but instead employers maximise their profits by taking our surplus value. Marx notes that “the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., working-class.”[4]

There are many examples of struggles over shorter working hours throughout history. The eight-hour working day in the Global North was not granted because of benevolent employers or lobbying politicians, but fought for and won through struggle. In 1856, Australian Stonemasons who were working harsh ten hours days walked off their job and eventually won an eight-hour day.[5] The same story was echoed in struggles internationally, with workers taking a collective stand for their pay and conditions. Eleanor Marx, who was a founder of the GMB Union in 1889, fought and won an eight hour workday for gas workers. On May Day in 1890, she also played a crucial role in organising the Hyde Park protest in London. This protest gathered hundreds of thousands of people with the key demand of an eight-hour workday.[6]

Multiplying Labor's Power

For a Living Wage and a Habitable Planet, We Need Climate Jobs Programs

By Paul Prescod - Jacobin, June 2, 2022

Climate and labor activists are coming together to hammer out ambitious but realistic plans for massively expanding the clean-energy sector in a way that also creates good union jobs. For both paychecks and the planet, it’s the only path forward.

The stalling of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda raises serious concerns for those looking to the federal government for strong action on climate change. Much of the more ambitious climate-related aspects of the legislation have already been gutted — and the fact that it still can’t pass a Congress with a Democratic majority is a worrying sign for the future.

But despite the dysfunction at the federal level, there are encouraging developments occurring at the state level. Increasingly, climate and labor activists are coming together to hammer out ambitious but realistic plans for massively expanding the clean-energy sector in a way that creates family-sustaining union jobs.

These state-based efforts are often facilitated by the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. States like New York, Connecticut and Maine have managed to get real buy-in from the building trades on a vision that defies the false jobs versus environment dichotomy. Recently, the Illinois legislature passed landmark climate legislation that puts the state on a path to reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2050, all with the full support of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Rhode Island has now joined the party. Earlier this year Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a broad labor-environmental coalition, released a report titled “Building a Just Transition for a Resilient Future: A Climate Jobs Program for Rhode Island.” The report, compiled in partnership with the Worker Institute at Cornell, takes a comprehensive approach to limiting carbon emissions — containing recommendations on retrofits, public transportation, renewable energy, and climate resilience.

The Rhode Island initiative is a good model for activists in other states to consider. In addition to meaningfully addressing climate change, there’s no doubt that this program would result in the creation of tens of thousands union jobs. It points the way forward for both the climate and labor movements, which must join together in order for the working class to have any hope of a sustainable future.

Workers and Communities in Transition: Virtual Discussion on the Just Transition Listening Project

By J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, and Todd E. Vachon - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 3, 2022

The Center for Global Work and Employment, Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) and Center for Environmental Justice at Colorado State University have recently sponsored a virtual discussion on the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP)’s 2021 report Workers and Communities in Transition. You can watch the recording online on LEARN-TV.

Reconnecting With the Radical Roots of Earth Day

By Johanna Chao Kreilick - Portside, April 22, 2022

Happy Earth Day! I was only four years old when the first Earth Day took place. But as I began to work on climate change, I found it inspiring to look back at the photos from April 1970 and learn about what motivated 20 million people to action—and the impact of public mobilization on policy and practice in the years that followed.

Many of my friends in the climate movement are understandably cynical about what Earth Day has become today—in many ways, it has been reduced to calls for small individual acts (like picking up trash or composting coffee grounds) over the larger systemic changes and solutions that require much harder choices and trade-offs. Some companies have co-opted the day to sell more “environmentally friendly” products, or worse, to provide polluters with an opportunity to greenwash their miserable track records. But as a lifelong student of history and an unbridled optimist, I still find hope and inspiration in its radical roots.

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