The right to strike, the right of all workers to withhold their labor to improve their well-being, is a fundamental and vital working class right.
It was the Great Postal Strike of 1970 that laid the foundation for the standard of living, rights and benefits we enjoy today as postal workers, including our right to collective bargaining.
While striking is hard on workers, it is a powerful weapon of last resort when workers face off against greedy, unscrupulous companies and their benefactors of Wall Street finance capital.
On December 1, Congress, at the urging of the White House and with bipartisan action, attacked and undermined the entire labor movement and the right to strike by imposing a “tentative agreement (TA)” on the country’s unionized Class 1 railroad workers. Members of four of the 12 rail unions, representing the majority of 100,000 railroad workers, had already democratically voted to reject the TA and were ready to begin strike action on December 9.
With great sacrifice, railroad workers, like so many essential workers, served the country keeping goods flowing through this pandemic. Yet these same workers have little control over work scheduling and are essentially on call 24/7. In essence, the rail corporations are maintaining their domination of these unionized workers in what amounts to the casualization of railroad workers. Shockingly, they do not receive a single paid sick day and often face adverse consequences and discipline when they are off for sickness or to care for sick family members. These quality-of-life issues of fair scheduling and paid sick leave were the core of the dispute between the unionized workers and management. Workers should be working to live, not living to work. As the TA failed to address these crucial issues, the majority of workers rejected it. The Wall Street-funded billionaires running the rail industry cut 45,000 jobs over the last six years, 30% of the workforce, creating massive and chronic short staffing, while raking in $21 billion in profits so far this year! It is outrageous that these obscenely profitable railroads refused the workers’ just demands and that Congress came down on the side of the bosses and corporate greed and became strike breakers.
Many labor leaders claim that Joe Biden is “the most pro-union president.” While we appreciate that President Biden has expressed pro-union sentiments, strengthened the NLRB, nominated a pro-union Secretary of Labor and signed the historic Postal Service Reform Act, the labor struggle in rail was a fundamental test of “Which Side Are You On,” to quote the old labor song. This Administration and the majority of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Senate failed the test by imposing a TA rejected by workers and without legislating paid sick time and fair scheduling. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO’s top leadership failed to organize a united resistance to the pending Congressional action against the railroad workers, nor have they condemned Congress’ overriding the workers’ collective bargaining rights, along with their right to strike.
Negotiations, and the prospects of strikes, are about power and leverage. At a moment when the railroad workers had maximum power in relation to the supply chain and the need for their essential work, the White House and the Democratic and the Republican Party leadership put their fingers on the scale and tipped it in favor of corporate America at the expense of the workers and human decency.
It is unconscionable for any workers to have so little control over work schedules and receive no paid sick leave. The struggle for dignity and respect for railroad workers and their justified quest for a better quality of life will undoubtedly continue, and the APWU stands with these workers and all workers seeking equity and justice.
Congress “justified” their anti-union actions by claiming that it was in the “national interest” to stop a rail strike. If they truly care for the national interests rather than the massive private profits and greed of Wall Street and the rail owners, then Congress should seriously consider nationalizing the railroads and running the essential rail network of our country as a national public treasure similar to the public Postal Service – and afford full collective bargaining rights for the workers.