Editor’s Notes: The featured image is a depiction from The Pullman Strike of 1894. Though it was an unsuccessful strike, it is a symbol of the militant history of railroad workers that is in desperate need of returning.
Over 100,000 union railroad workers and their families are up against the giant railroad monopolies who refuse to end precision railroad scheduling which penalizes railroad workers for any time off. The struggle has captured the attention of millions of workers across the country. It is the epitome of what we consider to be the effect that militant action from the leading elements of the working class in the basic industries creates. The bosses know this as well, which is why by hook and by crook (mostly crook) they try to control the unions representing the workers in the basic industries.
The specific tool they employ to accomplish this control is the Watson-Parker Law, known today as the Railway Labor Act of 1926. It is what guides the contract negotiation process for railroad workers. It was a reaction to the growing strength of the rail unions who had nearly 2 million members in the 1920s. Using the same excuse as today, the rail companies at that time argued that rail strikes were a grave threat to the national economy and had Congress first pass the 1920 Transportation Act to remove the right to strike from rail workers and place them under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Board which would determine when and how the workers could strike.
In response to the 1920 Transportation Act, over 400,000 rail workers went on a wildcat strike. Unfortunately their own union leaders, rattled from previous fights and bought off by the rail companies, were some of the first to break the wildcat strikes and many other rail unions refused to recognize the strike and freely crossed the picket lines. In the aftermath of the failed wildcat strike, the union leadership which was bought off by the rail companies adopted the 1923 “B. & O.” plan of union-management co-operation. This move was in line with the general class-collaboration AFL policy of seeking legal arbitration over strikes which never failed to speed-up production, worsen working conditions, and destroy the militancy of rail unions. In 1926, the Railway Labor Act was passed with the support of the class collaborationist rail union leadership.
In 1937 William Z Foster, who was a railroad worker himself, remarked that:
“Between the effects of the semi-compulsory arbitration of the Railway Labor Act and the non-militant altitude of the union leaders, the twenty-one railroad unions have sunk deeply into a no-strike program. They have also developed other reactionary tendencies. From being the progressive head of the labor movement, as they were in 1920, they have become its tail end. True, the railroad union leaders talk big, adopt radical demands and take strike votes. Such maneuvers may fool some workers but certainly the companies are not deceived by them. The railroad owners know that when they say “no,” the union leaders subside. The employers even sneer about it in their trade journals. Said the Wall Street Journal recently: ‘No one supposes that strike votes mean a strike; things don’t happen that way in the railroad industry.’”
Nearly 100 years later and we are witnessing the same spineless betrayal of the rail workers by their own union leadership. A betrayal born from the rotting age old AFL policy of class collaboration codified as “reward your friends and punish your enemies” first put forward by Samuel Gompers. This policy essentially amounts to finding friends and support for reactionary leadership and policies in the union from the bosses. Support from the union membership is inconsequential when your position is defended by the apparatus of the state. Gompers policy results in the defense of the exploitation of workers by “rewarding” boot-licking servants of companies and punishing honest trade unionists who expect more out their union. In fact, Samuel Gompers during WWI was a dear “friend” of President Wilson who forced the meatpackers back to work under forced arbitration during the war.
Samuel Gompers, lauded by the lackeys of the bosses as a great “labor statesman,” managed to have his favorite axiom “the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce” included in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. This line of his amounts to a rejection of reality and forms the ideological justification of the boss loving union misleadership that has sold out the rail workers today. Gompers, who puts an American twist on the age old issue of class collaboration, means by his statement that workers don’t actually sell their labor skill, and in fact, workers who toil under capitalism are free from exploitation.
If there is no such thing as “exploitation”, i.e. no dividends from the employment of the skill of a workers labor which is not remunerated to them, that workers don’t actually sell their labor skill, and that there is no such thing as a class of wealthy who profit off the labor of workers they employ, then a strike is nothing but “adversarial” between the workers and bosses who could amicably work out their differences in a court room since workers and company bosses apparently have the same interests. So goes the logic of Gompers. In other words, workers should help the company to ensure employment. But why confrontations between workers and bosses continue to exist in defiance of Gompers, or why workers continue to get poorer, or where profits originate, or why unions exist in the first place, Gompers axiom has no answer for. Its use is primarily for that stratum of the labor movement who seek to justify their corruption and wash their hands of the blood of workers they supposedly represent.
In most AFL-CIO collective bargaining agreements today the contract will say something to the effect of “The Employer and the Union have a common and sympathetic interest…” and “All will benefit by continuous peace and adjusting any differences by rational common-sense methods.” By “rational common-sense methods” this of course means legal arbitration through a legal system set up by and for serving the interests of the major corporations. Making a strike an “irrational” action. A strike is considered “irrational” by the opponents of class-oriented trade unionism because by not recognizing the opposing interests between the worker and the boss and now adopting the interests of the bosses – the withholding of labor (a strike) jeopardizes continued employment and the profits of the bosses. Meanwhile, as these lackeys of the bosses suppress strikes the purchasing power of the workers decline as corporations refuse to raise wages faster than inflation to extract record profits. The toothless unions of the AFL-CIO have effectively become a management tool for the major corporations through the adoption of Gompers’ class collaboration policies.
These ghouls have neutered labor, and the boss-loving leadership of the AFL-CIO have gone along in complicity. In fact, after the tentative agreement was ratified by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) railroad union the international president Lonnie Stephenson retired even though Lonnie was elected to another term as international president this past summer. Their replacement will be chosen by the leadership. Why did Lonnie seek re-election if they were going to retire mere months down the road? Why could the membership not vote in a new president at the summer convention? Because Lonnie still had one more service to provide to the Democrats by pushing the tentative agreement through for the IBEW to help the midterm elections and to ensure his replacement was not picked by the membership at large.
Honest trade-unionists seeking higher offices in the rail unions are suppressed or purged by the entrenched reactionaries who tie the unions to the political games of the Democrats and Republicans. This is what Gompers “reward your friends and punish your enemies” means. To rely on the bosses for support in our unions to suppress the militancy of the workers who struggle for a fighting union. In fact Dennis Pierce who pushed for the unpopular tentative agreement lost their re-election as president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) to Eddie Hall. It was an election which closed right after Biden prompted congress to break the strike and force the tentative agreement. With betrayal fresh in their minds, the workers voiced their frustration with the leadership of the BLET. But now the BLET disciplinary committee recommended filing a complaint—as well as a revote—with the Department of Labor against Eddie Hall for “election interference” for sharing an article about David Manning during the election. David Manning was also a candidate but was disqualified. Clearly, the results of the BLET election did not go the way the reactionary leadership wanted and they would like the bosses to reverse the democratic will of the membership, just as the Democrats did with the over 100,000 rail workers who rejected the tentative agreement. The goals of the misleadership have nonetheless been temporarily thwarted with Dennis Pierce’s withdrawal of his campaign’s complaints which lead to their decision, as well as removing himself from the ballot in a potential revote realizing his continued attempts at subversion of union democracy would cause irreparable harm to the union.
It is a joke for the Democrats to speak of “saving democracy” while they simultaneously trample on the democratic processes exercised by the rail workers. When “pro-labor” President Biden announced their recommendation to break the coming rail strike none of the leadership in the rail unions could offer the workers they represent anything but empty words of “frustration” with the decision to force the tentative agreement but then support for the doomed 7 days of paid sick leave which had zero chance of passing the Senate but offered the Democrats a convenient opportunity to simultaneously crush the rail workers but save face by showing that the Republicans refused to give rail workers paid sick time. Paid sick time was not why rail workers rejected the tentative agreement. That is why it’s clear now more than ever to rail workers the words of “solidarity” that come from the Democrats or Republicans and their lackeys in leadership positions of the unions are perverted and mean the opposite.
But the workers will not put up with these bought-off crooks in leadership of the AFL-CIO forever. It will take all honest trade-unionists to reject corporate political manipulation, demand militant leadership, and to put our unions back on the path of class-oriented trade unionism!