Railworkers’ recent labor battle exposed their increasingly brutal working conditions. We spoke with journalist Ryan Grim about the rank-and-file effort to rebuild power in rail unions — so workers can fight the railroad bosses even harder next time.

Rail employment is down about 30% over the last five years, and pay is down about 18% after inflation. (George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Life in the railroad industry has become miserable for workers. Over the last several years, the big lines have been using a strategy called precision scheduled railroading, which is a fancy term for running trains that are as long as possible — some as long as five miles — staffed with as few workers as possible. Employment industry-wide is down about 30 percent over the last five years, and pay is down about 18 percent after inflation.

That hasn’t resulted in a productivity miracle, but it has been great for railroad profits and hell on workers — who, as anyone who followed the recent rail dispute knows, aren’t even entitled to paid sick days.

Journalist Ryan Grim has published a long, well-reported article at the Intercept on rank-and-file organizing that railroad workers have undertaken, the political landscape of the settlement imposed this month by Washington, and the possibilities for future action. He spoke on Jacobin Radio’s Behind the News about the fight between railroad workers and their massively exploitative employers. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Doug Henwood

Let’s go back a decade or so, where you begin the piece. Precision schedule railroading was new to the scene. What is this practice, and how have the railroads been implementing it?

Ryan Grim

What they’re trying to do is keep the trains running as much as possible and keep them as long as possible. You now have trains that stretch more than five miles long. They are also running them with much fewer staff — to the point where some of the unions are running a two-crew campaign to make sure that there are at least two workers on the train. This is dangerous not just for the workers on the train but for those who live around rail tracks.

And they are all regional monopolies. So they can basically charge whatever they want to charge.

Doug Henwood

There’s only one railroad that’ll go from point A to point B — it’s not like you can choose among them.

Ryan Grim

Exactly. They have set up this brittle system, and if things fall apart, it’s the customers and the suppliers who pay the price.

And you’ve seen, over the last five to six years, a roughly 30 to 40 percent decline in staffing across the country.

When I was talking to workers, I would say, why were you able to put up a bigger fight this time than in past contract negotiations? Some of it was the militant rank-and-file organizing that I wrote about. Some of it was that just the conditions had changed. As [rank-and-file leader] Ross Grooters said to me, it’s just a fundamentally different industry than it was even three years ago.

And that’s something that the railroad executives, but also the union leaders, didn’t quite recognize, because they’re not riding the trains every day. The ground has really changed underneath them. And workers feel like they have very little left to lose at this point.

Doug Henwood

This is an industry that has a history of extreme worker militancy in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. But the Railway Labor Act of 1926 helped change all that.

Ryan Grim

That was brought in to basically bring peace between the railroads and their workers after, like you said, years of titanic clashes, which the public does not want.

It’s tough for workers. Very often they would get locked out rather than go on strike because the railroad bosses knew that they controlled the media, they controlled the messaging around the strike or the lockout. So they would lock the workers out, and all of a sudden you’re not getting your letters or food and energy. And because the railroad barons controlled the media — often literally owned the media — they would win the propaganda war and the strikes or the lockouts would result in workers getting less and less each time.

Depiction of Illinois National Guardsmen firing at striking workers on July 7, 1894. (G. A. Coffin / Harper’s Weekly)

In 1926, what they finally said is, okay, Congress can step in here. If you don’t come up with a deal between the unions and the bosses, then we’re going to set up a board. We’re going to come up with a deal, we’re going to send it to Congress, and we’re going to just enforce it — at which point a strike is illegal. If you wildcat strike after that, and if the railroad company can in any way tie the wildcat strike to the union, they can sue for damages.

You saw them saying that, if there was a strike, it would cost them $2 billion a day, and they’re happy to throw those numbers to a judge. Then the judge bankrupts the union.

The ’26 act also included a union shop clause, which gave legal recognition to the unions. This meant that, in some ways, the unions had less incentive to keep organizing their workers because they were legally locked in and because they knew Congress was going to step in and strike a deal. Nobody had any incentive to do anything more than just go through the motions.

And that’s basically where we’ve been for the last hundred years.

Doug Henwood

There are what, a dozen unions, involved in the current battle?

Ryan Grim

Yes, the Teamsters represent two of the biggest unions. Other major internationals represent some of the others — their rivals, in a lot of ways. They are constantly blaming each other for selling each other out during different contract negotiations. And because they work in different things, they have the same kind of rivalries that you would find in a restaurant between, say, folks in the back of the house and the waiters. And the bosses wedge in the cracks between these different craft unions.

So they finally find this union lodge, and they show up for a meeting and they witness this knockdown drag-out fight over sweatshirts.

Which is why you have people say, if you’re ever going to take on the railroads, UPS, Amazon, all of this, you have to do it as an industrial union. This craft union stuff is just not up to the challenge in a global world.

Doug Henwood

About ten years ago, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, the union that represents workers who perform maintenance on the tracks, started organizing. This is a very hard industry to organize because workers are so dispersed and they’re constantly moving all over the place. How’d they get awakened, and what did they do?

Ryan Grim

After the Tea Party wave, and then again after Republicans took the Senate in 2014, they started to stare down the possibility of a fairly radical Republican Party taking full control of the government in 2016, which, in fact, they did. The Maintenance of Way leader at the time, Freddie Simpson, was unusual among his peers in that he was pretty confident in his own leadership and said, If we’re going to save ourselves, we need to mobilize and organize our rank and file.

It might sound unusual to people who don’t follow organized labor — Why would a union need to organize its membership? Aren’t they already in a union? But they’ve been in a union since the 1880s, and it was a union in name only.

I heard this from several workers: that they showed up for work and tried to find a contract, tried to look for like a union representative or somebody in the union. They would ask all the other workers, how do I get in touch with the union? And nobody knew. This one guy, Tommy, finally finds a guy who’d been in the mechanics union in his previous job, and they were determined to figure out, where is this union?

So they finally find this union lodge, and they show up for a meeting and they witness this knockdown drag-out fight over sweatshirts. Because at the last meeting, the ten guys who had shown up had all voted that everybody who showed up for that meeting got a free sweatshirt, and then word got out. At the next meeting, more people showed up and were furious: Why do these folks get sweatshirts, we don’t get sweatshirts? Tom said he turned to the guy, he’s like, is this what union membership is? And he’s like, no, I’m telling you this is not.

This is like 2010, 2011, 2012. Then, after 2014, the Maintenance of Way union starts what they call a CAT program, modeled after a contract action team, which is what you build during contract negotiations to mobilize your workers. They called it a communications action team, because it was going to be more permanent. They hired this radical organizer to crisscross the country, and they gave him a budget to hire other organizers. They met six, ten, fifteen workers at a spot over months and months and months, teaching them, training them how to be activists within the union leading into the next contract negotiations. It ended up radicalizing a good number of workers.

They hired this radical organizer to crisscross the country, and it ended up radicalizing a good number of workers.

That project was eventually shuttered, because precision scheduled railroading was slashing staff so much that dues were absolutely plummeting: if you lose 30 percent of your workers, 30 percent of your dues go away. But the remnants of the program continue in the sense that (1) the rank and file are now mobilized, and (2) they were able to break down a lot of the barriers between the different federations, the different locals, and the locals and the leadership.

So little things, like they can now blast text messages out to everybody, they can send emails out to everybody and tell them, this bill is happening or this new thing in the negotiations happened. Believe it or not, that represents a significant step forward in their organizing capacity.

It was these workers that then took the lead in Congress after Joe Biden screwed them by sending it to Congress. Although there’s some debate about how much he screwed them, because some of the workers also were like, if you don’t get this done now, then we’re going to get an even worse deal when Kevin McCarthy is running the House of Representatives. So people don’t understand, I think, how much workers’ backs are up against the wall constantly. And they’re just living a life of trying to stave off losses endlessly.

Doug Henwood

Yeah, it looked like the most prolabor president in modern history, as people have been calling him, and I think he wants to call himself, put the kibosh on a strike. How do you read that?

Ryan Grim

They always knew that he was going to put the kibosh on a strike. All sides were aware of that. The question was, under what terms is he going to put the kibosh on a strike? They wanted it to be on their terms, add the sick days and grant most of the concessions they were asking for through Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board. And if he had done that, then across the board they’re fine with a strike being squashed because they also feel like the railroads themselves are the ones who are obstinate. So if you can force a deal on the railroads that they don’t want, they consider that to be a win.

Doug Henwood

And it looked like it could have been great PR moment because, you know, here’s these railroads making bundles of money and the workers can’t get sick days. This is not like Bolshevism [laughs], this is like a pretty reasonable set of demands.

Ryan Grim

If Democrats actually cared about this, there’s no question they could have gotten them the sick days. It has to come down to a question of, where did Biden actually side? And I think he just didn’t want to do it. A lot of these Democrats are just ideologically aligned with the railroads, and they look at this precision scheduled railroading stuff and they’re like, hmm, that’s pretty nice.

Doug Henwood

AOC and the Squad got roasted for voting to impose the contract. What’s your interpretation of what they did?

Ryan Grim

Their vote was cast in coordination with the unions. At first, when I reported that, people would say, well it’s the union leadership and the union leadership’s corrupt and they’re just tools for the Democratic Party. But it was actually the rank-and-file caucuses that were pushing this strategy, and the contacts that they had were with the Squad. That’s why they asked the Squad to pull this, in order to get the sick day vote — the only way that they were able to do that is if they also voted for the underlying tentative agreement.

It was actually the rank-and-file caucuses that were pushing this strategy, and the contacts that they had were with the Squad.

Rashida Tlaib and a few others ended up casting a no vote on imposing the original TA, but a yes vote if you imposed it with the sick days. And so some people said, well, everybody should have just done what Rashida Tlaib did. But if you try to get too clever with that stuff and your actual goal is to pass both out so that you can continue the fight in the Senate, if too many of you start doing that on the floor, Republicans then have their own agency and can vote this down.

You might think, well great, now the workers can strike. Except no, that’s not what would happen next. What would happen next is Nancy Pelosi says, “Alright, the deal was that there’s going to be two votes and if this passes, you get the seven-day sick day vote. This didn’t pass, therefore I’m putting the original contract back on the floor and there’s going to be no sick day vote.”

And at that point, you get a hundred Republicans who vote for it, send it over, and you lost your fight. So if the actual goal is to do what the unions and the unionized workers want you to do, which is to get the sick day vote through the House and over to the Senate, you don’t want to play around too much.

Doug Henwood

What’s your read on how that went through and what it says?

Ryan Grim

My gut instinct is to say, just don’t impose a settlement on workers and defer to the unions. The fact that all this is happening in a political arena, that labor relations are really a function of Congress and the president and bureaucracy — this is not good for their working class.

Doug Henwood

They’re criticized for, as you said, deferring to a corrupt leadership rather than a militant rank and file. Is that true in this case?

Ryan Grim

There are two radical caucuses, Railroad Workers United and the BMWED Rank and File United. They certainly don’t represent 100 percent of the rank and file.

One guy mentioned to me, he’s like, most of my coworkers are conservatives. I was really shocked to see that it was the progressives that were fighting for us and the Republicans were selling us out. And particularly highlighting people like Jamaal Bowman.

To me, that’s actually what progressives need to do to: Say no, we’re with the working class. We’re going to have this fight and we’re going to show you through that fight whose side we’re on.

A lot of workers didn’t see it as breaking a strike or stopping them from striking, because they’ve known that because of this law that’s been in place almost a hundred years, there wasn’t going to be a strike. They don’t like the Railway Labor Act, but they know that it exists.

Doug Henwood

So what’s next? Is the fight over for now?

Ryan Grim

They had a rally yesterday with Bernie Sanders and Bowman and a bunch of other House Democrats where they were calling on the White House to use executive authority, either through the Department of Labor or the Department of Transportation, to get sick days. And there are a number of other concessions that they’re still pushing for.

To me, that’s actually what progressives need to do to: Say no, we’re with the working class. We’re going to have this fight and we’re going to show you through that fight whose side we’re on.

One reason they’re focusing on Mayor Pete [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] is that he has jurisdiction over fatigue and health and safety, and they think that would be more solid in court than just a straight-up executive order from Biden over seven sick days.

Mayor Pete has just missed opportunity after opportunity as transportation secretary. For a guy who wants to be president, he sure doesn’t show any signs of having any interest in doing anything that would make people inspired by him. It’s quite something to watch.

Doug Henwood

Well, this is the McKinsey in him coming out.

Ryan Grim

Yes, it really is. It’s like, do you want to be a McKinsey guy or do you want to be president? I don’t think you can have both.

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