Statement on the US Rail Workers' Struggle

Rail workers are the most overt targets of the bosses' offensive in the class war. On November 28th, Biden issued a statement in which he called on Congress to “avert” a strike of 100,000 rail workers by “adopting” the Tentative Agreement that had been reached back in September between the unions supposedly representing these workers and the railroad companies employing them. In subsequent days, and with the support of both parties in both houses of Congress, the contract was ratified and sent to Biden's desk, where he signed it into law.

The reporting of the bourgeois mass media on this episode in the class struggle hides the true meaning and consequences of this unilateral action. In reality, a strike by rail workers was not “averted,” but instead declared illegal. And the Tentative Agreement was not “adopted” by Congress; rather, the state is forcing an already-rejected contract on workers against their will.

We denounce, unequivocally, the state, rail companies, and unions for their attacks against rail workers and the working class at large. The unions in particular have been unmasked as capital’s recruitment sergeants: helping to incorporate workers peacefully into production, so that they don’t strike and disrupt business profits or the enormous American war machine. The world economy, already teetering on the brink of depression as a result of having accumulated over decades a substantial capital stock, far in excess of what could be profitably employed, has been severely shaken by a global pandemic and a war in Ukraine that now threatens to drag all humankind towards nuclear armageddon. This economic system has been artificially propped up by state intervention through all the usual mechanisms in many countries, including the US. But a strike in the logistics sector could paralyze the movement of saleable goods, which would jeopardize private sector profits, so the state, in its capacity as “guarantor of last resort” to the whole capitalist class, acted, once more, on its behalf to suppress the rail workers’ strike.

The way forward and out of this humiliating condition, for rail workers and the rest of the working class, will not come about except through workers’ independent self-organization, launched outside and against the unions and the state, allowing workers to assume control of their own struggles. This initiative for self-organization finds its logical conclusion in the overthrow of capitalism and consequent construction of a society without classes, markets, or borders; something only realizable with the presence of the future class party in the class’ struggles.


Rail workers are the latest targets of the bosses’ assault in the class war. Crisis-ridden capitalism’s need to maintain profitability and readiness for war at all costs lay behind Biden and the state’s strike-breaking tactic of imposing an already rejected contract on the workers. In a move supported by both bourgeois political parties and all of the factions within them, the message of the ruling class is clear: workers are tools in the running of the war economy, and its needs will always come first before their wellbeing. It is, however, necessary not just to denounce the imposition of this contract on workers, but also place it within the context of a quickly worsening global crisis for capitalism, the class war, and march towards generalized imperialist war.

Workers in logistics are no strangers to being on the receiving end of capitalism’s cost-cutting attacks to increase profitability. Since the start of the crisis in the 1970s, the logistics sector has been slowly skinned alive by the capitalists, while the unions have acted as passive spectators or even enablers in the whole process. As workers in the industry have been laid off en masse, and many lost their livelihoods, all to keep the bosses’ investments profitable, those workers who’ve remained have been forced to assume a greater amount of the work. Under the pretense of achieving greater efficiency, which under this system means fatter profits for the rail owning company, rail workers’ exploitation has been intensified as they’ve seen workdays lengthened and days off, paid or otherwise, reduced to the absolute acceptable minimum.

The rail workers’ exploitation is both intensified, through the greater ‘efficiency’ expected of them within a given time frame, while the working day is itself lengthened, as workers are expected to take on longer hours and with fewer days off. This noose around the rail workers’ necks is codified and largely enforced through the contracts that the unions themselves push on their own membership, making continued employment, and thus workers’ basic survival, contingent on their acceptance of ever-higher rates of exploitation and worsening work conditions.

It is obvious that the vast majority of railroad workers favor striking. This is borne out by the vote of workers within the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), 99.5% of whom responded in favor of striking.(1) Tellingly, even the survey recommended by the “Presidential Emergency Board'', to which 3,162 railroad workers across the industry responded, showed 90% support for a strike after the federally mandated cool off period.(2) Rail workers’ near unanimous support for striking is a result of the sustained attacks from the bosses, which they’ve had to humiliatingly endure. Because of the need for rails to be operational at all times, many railroad workers are on call all-day every day, all year round.(3) The work itself is intensive, exhausting, and workers often have to get on trains to go from one place to another across the country. In many cases, these same workers will work as part of another train crew, when they aren’t traveling they sort and unload shipments to warehouse stations in the railyards. This is made worse by the layoffs and cuts, which aim, in the typical capitalist fashion, to maximize profitability by minimizing the amount of workers employed and stretching them by burdening them with additional work. Rail workers also get hardly any time off, even for sickness, and what time off they do receive is not paid. Further, when they do take their time off, they are often subject to repercussions through attendance disciplinary policies that seek to discourage workers from staying home when they could be making money for the company owners. With rising inflation and living costs, the unstable scheduling, grueling conditions of work, the stress of suffering repercussions for taking any time off, the general fatigue of the job, and ever shrinking compensation, railroad workers are being squeezed to their absolute limit to satisfy the inhuman needs of a system for which exploitation and war are a modus operandi.

While the rail workers are languishing, their screams and demands are being muffled by the state and union bureaucracy, who wish badly to avoid any disruptions to capitalist profit-making and the war economy. Over the past year, the Biden Administration has invoked the Railway Labor Act to repeatedly strong arm the railroad workers through cool down periods.(4) The recent Senate vote to force a contract on the workers that addresses none of their major concerns, and which, on the contrary, sets the stage for future attacks on railroad and other workers by capital, is only the latest episode. The contract which the Senate voted on is more or less based on an earlier agreement by the leadership of the major unions in the railway industry and the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB).(5) It includes a single additional personal day, a 24% raise over 5 years, which would barely suffice to bring rail workers’ wages to level with inflation, caps on healthcare costs of otherwise unpaid medical needs, and exceptions for disciplinary actions.(6) This amounts to essentially nothing in the grand scheme of things and is just poking salt into the fresh wounds of the railroad workers, who have now seen first-hand the farcical nature of bargaining process and the unions, whose real purpose is to act as brake on any potential labor action, while the state acted on behalf of military and private economic interests to keep saleable goods and weapons moving.

Predictably, the capitalist bosses have deployed their entire state and media ideological apparatuses to smear rail workers as “greedy”, because of the supposed “economic damage” their stoppage would cause, even going so far as to accuse them of holding the economy ransom by threatening a recession through their going on strike. Of course, this is all so much nonsense. For one, the “economy” doesn’t belong to us, ordinary working-class people. Rather, it is the collective property of the capitalist bosses, who hoard all of humanity’s wealth in the form of land, natural resources, and large-scale productive equipment, and employ it for their own profit. The capitalist system as a whole depends on our labor to create ever-greater amounts of wealth, even while the people who toil under miserable conditions to make it are increasingly dispossessed, especially in relation to what they produce. Moreover, a crisis of the system was already thought to be on the horizon, including by many mainstream economists and other “commentators”, even before the same news show talking-heads had COVID or the Russian-Ukrainian war to use as an easy scapegoat.(7)


And what do the unions have to say about all this? Their actions speak for themselves. In the months leading up to the senate vote, various union leaders made calls for workers to be “reasonable” and consider the needs of “all parties involved.” In other words: “swallow the awful contract, and return to work to make money for the bosses.” In typical union fashion, they spoke out of both sides of their mouth, saying, on the one hand, that they won’t tell workers how to vote, but strongly reminding them of the consequences of rejecting contracts, which is the precise outcome that the union leaders would have preferred. “[T]he idea that [Congress] will let us shut down the nation’s economy for any length of time I don’t think is likely,” says the national president of the BLET. “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,” said the President of the SMART-TD rail union. The unions’ role as sellers of labor peace to capitalist employers and merchants of human labor-power, negotiating its purchasing price with the owners of capital, rings starkly clear in their own statements. Indeed, Karl Marx’s critique of unions holds true today just as much as it did in 1865: “[Trade Unions] fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”(8) As we can see, however, more often than not they don’t even fail in “limiting themselves to a guerrilla war”, but immediately seek surrender against the capitalist bosses on the least costly terms possible.

Organizations which act as the false friends of the working class are equally complicit. The DSA's representatives in Congress (with the exception of one) all voted in line with the Democrats and Republicans in imposing this contract on workers.These representatives used the flimsy excuse that they did it while voting for the additional measure to add more days of sick leave to the contract, however that argument falls apart given that the separate measure was destined to die in the Senate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush all acted as strikebreakers, indistinguishable from the rest of the Democratic Party. The same could be said of the one DSA representative, Rashida Tlaib, who did not vote for the contract, and Bernie Sanders, that darling of the capitalist left in the Senate, as well. Neither of them voted down the contract because they were opposed to the state imposing a contract on workers; rather, they voted it down because it didn't contain their preferred measures (namely, sick leave). Tlaib and Sanders were only more adept at playing bourgeois politics than the other DSAers in Congress. Had the sick leave been included in the contract from the start, there's no reason to believe that Sanders and Tlaib would have behaved differently from any other politician beholden to the capitalist system; that they wouldn’t have used the repressive power of the capitalist state to decide for rail workers what they must decide for themselves, and make the strike illegal.

In the aftermath of the above-mentioned shameful votes by DSA congresspeople to break the rail workers’ strike, there are now calls from within that organization to create greater mechanisms of supposed “accountability”' for their members who hold public offices. This is, of course, a dead end. There simply is no mechanism, however participatory and democratic, which could ensure that the elected representatives of a political party or other organization to the capitalist state – the apparatus for managing the affairs of the whole system – behave other than as required of them by capitalism. To win elections, candidates have to ‘sell’ workers on something that is impossible by campaigning on managing the system for the wellbeing of the working class. This is impossible because capitalism demands that businesses grow endlessly to keep pace with their rivals on the market, and the only way to obtain that growth is to reduce working-class consumption and raise the rate of exploitation (this is always what’s meant by “increasing productivity”). For this reason, the IWG and other internationalist organizations have remained clear with regards to the treacherous and capitalist nature of the DSA. In this latest instance, the DSA gave the clearest and most irrevocable proof yet for its actual role as “shock troops” for the Democratic Party, and thereby revealed itself to be a tool of the bosses. The organization acted to break a strike that could have paralyzed the US economy and unleashed a class movement to put power decisively in the hands of working people. In so doing, it showed itself to be fundamentally at odds, not just with rail workers, but the working class as a whole.


We support and solidarize ourselves with the railroad workers in their struggle against the state, the railway companies, and the unions and other false friends, who’ve tried to sabotage them every step of the way. It’s clear most rail workers are inclined to strike and many believe it is on the agenda. We encourage them to follow that inclination and throw off the union and state limitations telling them when they can and cannot strike. It is essential too to emphasize that for the most profound victory, the struggle must become generalized, and rail workers must be aided through other sectors of the class, who recognize their own struggle in that of the rail workers. Further, we appeal to railroad workers to see their own self-organization through to its logical conclusion by creating fighting organs free of any state or union influence, such as independent strike and struggle committees, or, as appear in more intense and generalized episodes of class struggle, mass assemblies, and workers’ councils. These bodies are formed out of the need to struggle and made up of democratically-elected and instantly revocable delegates, who are tasked with serving as messengers between different groups of striking workers. As products of the strike itself, these fighting bodies are the best weapon to focus workers’ counteroffensive to the bosses, as well as the one means of ensuring that the workers’ struggle remains their own.





Internationalist Workers’ Group (US affiliate of the Internationalist Communist Tendency)
21 December 2022




(3) “The job is just really becoming fewer people doing more work faster,” said Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Iowa and co-chair of Railroad Workers United. “We’ve seen in this country all workers getting more and more squeezed" ... "These railroads are making billions of dollars. In the past, we’ve been well compensated for being on call 24/7, 365 days a year. That’s been eroded over the course of my career in the last two decades to where it’s just not appealing enough to attract people into the workplace,” said Grooters.”





(8) Marx, Karl. Value, Price, and Profit. Ch. 3

Friday, December 23, 2022