The expedited legislation passed by Congress to avert a strike by railroad unions dealt one more blow in the decades long war waged by the two ruling parties against the working class.
By Chris Hedges
The congressional decision to prohibit railroad workers from going on strike and force them to accept a contract that meets few of their demands is part of the class war that has defined American politics for decades.
The two ruling political parties differ only in rhetoric. They are bonded in their determination to reduce wages; dismantle social programs, which the Bill Clinton administration did with welfare; and thwart unions and prohibit strikes, the only tool workers have to pressure employers.
This latest move against the railroad unions, where working conditions have descended into a special kind of hell with massive layoffs, the denial of even a single day of paid sick leave, and punishing work schedules that include being forced to “always be on call,” is one more blow to the working class and our anemic democracy.
The rage by workers towards the Democratic Party, which once defended their interests, is legitimate, even if, at times, it is expressed by embracing proto-fascists and Donald Trump-like demagogues.
Dating back to the Clinton administration with NAFTA, the greatest betrayal of the working class since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the Democratic Party has become a full partner in the corporate assault on workers. The cloying feel-your-pain rhetoric, a staple of the Joe Biden White House, is offset by a hypocritical subservience to the billionaire class.
In 1926, the havoc wreaked by rail strikes led to the federal government passing the Railway Labor Act to give itself the power to impose labor settlements on the rail industry. The Biden administration used this authority to broker a tentative labor agreement that would ensure a 24 percent pay increase by 2024, annual $1,000 bonuses and a freeze on rising health care costs.
But workers would be permitted only one paid personal day and no paid sick leave. Of 12 unions voting on the deal, four of them — representing 56 percent of union membership in the industry — refused to ratify it. Biden signed the legislation into law on Friday.
The railroad barons refuse to permit sick days because they have stripped the railroads down to skeleton crews in a process known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR. In essence, no spare labor is available, which is why the reduced labor force is subjected to such punishingly short periods of time off and onerous working conditions.
Class struggle defines human history. We are dominated by a seemingly omnipotent corporate elite. Hostile to our most basic rights, this elite is disemboweling the nation; destroying basic institutions that foster the common good, including public schools, the postal service and health care; and is incapable of reforming itself.
The only weapon left to thwart this ongoing pillage is the strike.
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Workers have the collective power to slash profits and cripple industry, which is why the ruling class has gone to such lengths to defang unions and outlaw strikes. A rail freight strike, it is estimated, would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, with daily losses increasing the longer a strike continued.
The few unions that remain — only 10.7 percent of the workforce is unionized — have been largely domesticated, demoted into obsequious junior partners in the capitalist system. As of January 2022, private-sector unionization stood at its lowest point since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. And yet, 48 percent of U.S. workers say they would like to belong to a union.
Railroad workers have been especially hard hit. The workforce has shrunk from nearly 540,000 in 1980 to some 130,000 today. The consolidation of the rail industry means there are only seven Class I freight companies, with four of those companies controlling 83 percent of rail traffic.
Service on the nation’s rail lines, along with working conditions and wages, has deteriorated as Wall Street squeezes the big railroad conglomerates for greater and greater profits. Indeed, the fragility of the rail system led to huge backlogs and delays during the pandemic.
The Democrats insist they are the party of the working class. Joe Biden calls himself “a proud pro-labor president.” But they pile up one empty promise after another.
In 2020, they promised, for example, that with control of the White House and both branches of Congress, they would pass a law to strengthen collective bargaining. Instead, they revoked the collective bargaining power of one of the few unionized industries that retains it.
They promised to raise the minimum wage. They failed. They promised a national paid family and medical leave program allowing all employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off. It never happened.
They promised to impose a federal tax rate on corporations ranging from 21 percent to 28 percent, so that “wealthy Americans and big corporations pay their fair share.” The proposed tax increase was scuttled.
They promised to pass legislation to ensure that super PACs “are wholly independent of campaigns and political parties.” It went nowhere. They then mounted a midterm election campaign, which cost both parties a staggering $16.7 billion and was funded by massive infusions of PAC money.
Saying the Right Thing, Doing the Wrong Thing
The Democrats routinely say the right thing and do the wrong thing, and this is true for its tiny progressive minority, which dutifully votes to funnel billions to the war industry, including the war in Ukraine.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and most other progressive House members voted for the anti-union legislation while also voting for a separate resolution that would have given rail workers seven days of paid sick leave. The unions were demanding 14.
The second resolution died in the Senate, as they knew it would, leaving workers with a woefully inadequate, pro-management deal that over half of them had already rejected. To his credit, Bernie Sanders voted against the bill when the sick leave amendment from the House, which he backed, was rejected in the Senate.
Why does any legislator believe railroad workers should be forced to use what few vacation days they may have if they fall sick and request permission to be absent days in advance, as if illnesses are scheduled events? Congress members and their staff do not work under these conditions.
“In a statement that perfectly captured the yawning gap between Democratic Party rhetoric and behavior,” Binyamin Appelbaum, the lead writer on economics and business for The New York Times editorial board, wrote in the newspaper,
“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced railroad companies as rapacious profiteers who ‘have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.’ Then, just one sentence later, she announced that House Democrats would stand with the profiteers.”
What are we to make of a Congress that refuses to support a single day of paid sick leave for 115,000 freight railroad workers, while the combined net income of the railroad industry is $27 billion — double what it was in 2013?
What are we to make of a Congress that in its latest military policy legislation sets the appropriation at $45 billion above the Pentagon’s request?
What are we to make of a Congress that refuses to pass gun control legislation despite 600 mass shootings this year, more than one per day?
What are we to make of a Congress that defunds the Internal Revenue Service, making it only practical to investigate those earning middle and lower incomes and near impossible to investigate tens of billions of dollars in tax evasion by corporations and the rich?
What are we to make of a Congress that rewrites the tax code on behalf of lobbyists so 55 of the largest corporations that collectively made over $40 billion in pre-tax income in 2020 — paid no federal income tax and received $3.5 billion in tax rebates?
What are we to make of a Congress, more than half of whose members are millionaires, who flagrantly use their committee assignments, inside knowledge of proposed legislation and classified intelligence reports to carry out insider trading to increase their wealth?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband invested millions of dollars in computer-chip stocks as the Democratic leadership was formulating a plan to subsidize the chip-manufacturing industry.
A Natural Antagonism
Most political theorists, including Aristotle, Niccolò Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and Max Weber, started from the premise that there is a natural antagonism between owners and workers. They understood that if the oligarchs shook off all restraints to the accumulation of wealth, it would destroy the political order.
The ruling class masks its greed behind ideologies — in our nation’s case, free market capitalism and neoliberal globalization. Neoliberalism never made any economic sense. But it was disseminated by compliant academics, the media and political theorists because, to quote Marx, it allowed “the dominant material relationships” to be “grasped as ideas.”
“We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are,” Wendell Berry wrote.
“Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so, and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us. How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”
All the advances we made in the early 20th century through union strikes, government regulation, the New Deal, a fair tax code, the courts, an alternative press and mass movements have been reversed.
The oligarchs are turning American workers — as they did in the 19th century steel and textile factories — into serfs, kept in check by onerous anti-union laws, militarized police, the world’s largest prison system, an electoral system dominated by corporate money and the most pervasive security and surveillance apparatus in human history.
The rich, throughout history, have subjugated and re-subjugated the populations they control. And the public, throughout history, has awakened to the class war waged by the oligarchs and plutocrats and revolted.
Let us hope that defying Congress, freight railroad workers carry out a strike. A strike will at least expose the fangs of the ruling class, the courts, law enforcement and the National Guard, much as they did during labor unrest in the 20th century, and broadcast a very public message about whose interests they serve. Besides, a strike might work.
Nothing else will.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”
Author’s Note to Readers: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waiver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at chrishedges.substack.com so I can continue to post my Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, “The Chris Hedges Report.”
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Outing betrayal of working class Americans by the party of FDR & LBJ has become meme tnx 2 Chris & CN among others.
Though few CN readers are likely to ask, this commenter will: so how many times did mentioned historian Machiavelli advise the Princes: “Divide 2 Conquer”?
& to mention a more recent historical fact: the song “Think Twice” corresponded timeways w/ min wage freeze… leading to this speculation:
Did employer elites have in mind a strategy of their own?
Specifically: “So ya wanna get Fair Pay… or… a Nice Family Tent?”
Engineered austerity Indeed!
One illuminating fact from history I learned that slavery was economically efficient. Despicable, but efficient in GDP terms. Quality of life was lacking for some sectors of the population…
While outfits like American Enterprise Institute excel in bogus calculations, there is also a genuine component, as we “progress” toward slave-like conditions, efficiency measured in GDP terms is improving, at least in narrow calculus. There are even “synergy results”:
less sick leave –> smaller utilization of healthcare –> drop in longevity –> improved balance of retirement systems, both private and national
Perhaps we need “Humans First”, “Make Humans Great Again” etc. Successes like pairing down population 65 years or older should count as failures, and failures have to be traced to their roots.
Slavery was only efficient in certain economic circumstances. For example, the plantation south had slavery, but the industrial north by and large sloughed slavery off. Even the parts of the south supporting small farmers or tradesmen was neutral or hostile to slavery. If the north hadn’t invaded the Confederacy, the south might have had its own civil war. I’d say the best defense against slavery was enforcement of the antitrust laws against large conglomerates. Also, strict enforcement of immigration laws to keep pressure on wages rising for American workers.
Capitalism has come to embody evil since it abandoned its few and feeble efforts to work with the work force rather than against it. Now it suppresses, threatens, and penalises the work force, treating them just like prisoners doing hard labour in a prison.
It seems as if the gloves are right off now in the US, and history should tell the bosses & politicians that it won’t end well for them. They cannot win, at least not for long. The struggle will become nasty, bloody even, and will no doubt cost lives – and hopefully a few fortunes as well.
I expect that the US will starting using police and military force next, and all sorts of other dirty tricks to deceive and weaken the unions and workers. As everyone knows, the US doesn’t know how to negotiate fairly – and it much prefers using force, which it understands better.
There should be no doubt left in anyone’s minds, anywhere in the world, that nearly all (are there any that don’t?) governments, big business, and other vested interest groups do not have the interests of the people at heart – quite the contrary, they see people merely as resources to be exploited, used and abused and then discarded when no longer useful. To them, we are just another commodity – nothing more! They see themselves as superior, as smarter, as more ‘deserving’ as better humans and us as subhuman, inferior, undeserving and disposable.
That needs to change, soon.
Soon enough it won’t be an option anymore, it will be all that is left to people who do all the work in this country (and others under US domination), from the doctors to the doormen and all around and in-between…it would be better to start getting on tightening that up and getting ready, right now.
“Let us hope that defying Congress, freight railroad workers carry out a strike.” Chris Hedges
Ageed! The Unions gotta fight for their right to $ T R I K E, against the “Power Couple’s,” Intervention!
The “Power Couple” imposing a contract once rejected, twice served up, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Gee Dubyah Bush (9.17.02).
I digress, “Make a circle in the sand. Make a halo w/your hand.” The WSWS has made a place for The Railroad Workers to land: TONIGHT, “ONLINE RALLY,” OPPOSE the Imposition, Intervention & STRIPPING Workers of their democratic Right To STRIKE!
TONIGHT, Tuesday, 7:p.m.(EST), 4:p.m.(PST) “The Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee has announced an online rally this Tuesday Register for the event here. All supporters of the railroaders are urged to attend.”…wsws.com
“The bus is running. It’s time to leave. Summer’s gone. So, are we. So, come on, let’s go shut ‘em down!” Let US get “THEM” to “GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!!!” …i.e., Paid sick time off, A freeze on medical costs, Pay increases; and, More consistent scheduling. The focus is a human rights’ solution, NOW-The Future!!! Otherwise, from Coast to Coast, S T R I K E!!!
..p.s., Memo to The Power Couple: CANCEL” the Ground/Air WAR in Ukraine. CANCEL the Economic Warfare aka $ocial Murder. CANCEL the Extradition of Julian Assange. CANCEL f/screwing with the Working Class. “Give the People” what they want. TY. “Keep It Lit.”
If anyone REALLY wants to, “Know Thine Enemy” — then HERE is the true source (and what to do about THEM): nomoreinsanity.org
I also hope the rail workers go on strike and I would hope a majority of people will support them. Popular support could make a big difference in their success. We need to reintroduce words like the proletariat and class solidarity back into everyday conversation with our family and social contacts. We truly are the 99% being bullied by the 1%. Occupy got that right which is why it was shut down with extreme prejudice. The dominant narrative needs to be taken back from the rulers by the people.
I hope the railroaders go on strike, too. And I hope truckers and other transport workers support them and also go on strike. Nothing moves! That should be the rallying cry.
I lived many years in the US and it never struck me as being a pro-social country.
Who did you think was paying for all of those multi million dollar political campaigns? Who indeed?
In all fairness, sizable numbers of working class Americans did turn out this past midterm election. They turned out to vote for Democratic Party candidates like Gavin Newsom, John Fetterman, Mark Kelley, Raphael Warnock, JB Prtizker, Kathleen Hochul, Mandela Barnes, AOC, Gretchen Whitmer, Hank Johnson, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Taleb, Cory Bush, Maxine Waters, Alayna Pressley, Mark Pocan, etc. etc. etc.
Whether they voted for one of these Democratic Party candidates or simply chose to sit on their backsides and remain at home, they asked for it. They got it. Now, let them live with the consequences of their own choices…or non choices, as it were.
The working class should not be voting for Democrats. Democrats were never a party of the working class. I stayed home on election day as I always do unless candidates from the Socialist Equality Party are running. That is the only party I support. The working class needs to understand the power it has to stop everything through striking. I support a call for a general strike.
But what’s the possibility that they were voting to keep what they perceived as a WORSE OPTION out of power, and not necessarily because they had trust that Democrats would legislatively support a more progressive, more socially intelligent planned American system?
Wendell’s analogy is the perfect one. As someone who grew up on a small family farm–long gone–I knew the powerlessness against the corporation/government duopoly.
Their are three things I wish Chris had pointed out. 1) The risk to rail workers going out on a wildcat strike at this point is immense. Out of fear for their security, many will still cross the picket line thus weakening the unions even further. Workers will almost certainly face tremendous criticism from the American consumer inconvenienced by their action. 2) Not only have railroads cut staff, they have made the trains dangerously long, deferred maintenance and make little to no investment in actually improving their infrastructure–nothing that will take away from short term profits. 3) Finally, the railroads regularly cut service to any location they deem not worth the trouble any longer leaving small communities without service they have relied on for a hundred years or more.
I despair at the state of the working class in USA and increasingly, the rest of the West which eventually submits to American demands to practice the same. The inevitable consequence will be another Revolution of the working class against the wealthy capitalists. Human history keeps repeating and it seems we as a species never really learn.
A revolution has been destroyed in the cradle with the Patriot Act and the National security authorization act. Translation, these agencies were put in place to control the population in case of, you guessed it, revolution that they knew was coming. How convenient 911 was in bringing about the Patriot Act by George the shrub Bush. They frightened us so we would allow anything to go through, then under Obama, a Democrat, the NSAA was passed and this one put the nail in the coffin of freedom so now your rights are paper or plastic, take it or leave it. The how and why are easy to find, start by reading the Modern Anglo-Dutch empire: Its origins, evolution, and anti-human outlook, by Robert Ingrahm. The American system of valuing humans by the founders was disrupted and destroyed by the Malthusian-eugenics loving free marketers that see humans as no more than Apes allowing them to exploit, rob, rape, starve poor countries and stopping any kind of industrialization to take place that would interfere with their own. This was true in the American south and said south was started and run by the British empire. The south lost the war, but the empire won on the economic war and have been in control ever since. Just read the book and it will become clear as to why nothing changes.
The situation in the US is beginning to take on features of a society which were written some years ago by Jack London in his fictitious novel ‘The Iron Heel’ first written in 1907. London imagines a proletarian revolution breaking out in his own country, the United States, and being crushed, or partially crushed by a counter-offensive of the capitalist class; and, following on this, a long period in which society is ruled over by a small group of tyrants know as the Oligarchs, who are served by a kind of Schutzstaffel (SS) known as the Mercenaries. An underground struggle against this dictatorship was the kind of thing that London could imagine, and he foresaw certain of the details with surprising accuracy, the peculiar horror of totalitarian societies, for instance, the way of which suspected enemies of the regime, simply disappear. George actually reviewed the book in 1945, and actually made oblique reference to the Soviet regime. Orwell writes:
”The book is chiefly notable for maintaining that capitalist society would not perish of its own contradictions” a favourite Marxist position, ”but that the possessing class would be able to form itself into a vast concentration and even evolve into a sort of perverted socialism, sacrificing many of its privileges in order to retain its superior status. Orwell cites a particularly cogent passage written by London as follows.
”They – the Oligarchs – as a class believe that they alone maintained civilization. It was their belief that, if they ever weakened, the great beast would engulf them and everything of beauty and joy and wonder and good in its cavernous and slime-dripping maw. Without them anarchy would reign and humanity would drop backward into the primitive night out of which it had so painfully emerged … in short they alone, by their unremitting toil and self-sacrifice, stood between weak humanity and the all devouring beast; and they believed it, firmly believed it.”
Introduction to Love of Life by Jack London and other stories reviewed by George Orwell 1945.
Interestingly enough a more hopeful motion picture came out in 1946 the post war period starring James Stewart (as George Bailey) as the all American little man struggling against Big Money, it does the rounds every Christmas.
Thanks for this post. More young people need to read London.
I remember I was knee-deep in the Wisconsin pro-union protests in Madison in 2011 when the union-busting Chamber of Commerce Republican Scott Walker and his anti-union cronies were smashing our union — the national Democrats did virtually nothing. Neither Biden nor Obama visited us to lend any sort of serious support. They felt it would jeopardize them in the 2012 presidential election.
If I might be so rude as to make a historical observation addressing Mr. Hedges last three words here referring to a strike.
He states “Nothing else will.” He is correct and nothing
The pendulum has swung much too far the authoritarian right in this present day, Labor has lost any effective clout in D.C. for much too long of a time. “Nothing else will”, because historically speaking “Nothing else has”.
Strikes are effective, if workers are not allowed to bargain in good faith with owners and operators the congress should be empowered to do if for them. Rail-roaders and truck drivers seldom go home every night, most cops do, and many in the military are away for great lengths of time when deployed but they do accrue leave time
No one argues that the police or the military offer great benefits to our countrie’s security, many truck drivers get time off or “Take time off”. The owner operator does not get paid for it in many cases. Medical workers run the these other groups a close second.
If Biden wanted to be fair he would gotten them something to work for, he didn’t. Something I consider as a terrible mistake.
At some point strikes will occur and it will not be pretty. Unionized cops crossing picket lines to arrest strikers after the National Guard gets called out.
More proof of the government serving corporate interests by stealing time off from corporate workers.
Biden gets my vote for being the heartless “Grinch” this Christmas season.
This is one of the most powerful op-eds I have ever read. It speaks to the utter dissolution of our democratic government, and how both major parties, but especially the Democratic party, has betrayed all the working people of this country (the Republican party has not claimed to be interested in that). Every line of this is accurate, and if you can read this and not be angry, then clearly you are not an erstwhile democrat. It’s time to stand up for the country we once had. I know what it should look like – I grew up in the Roosevelt era that worked hard to foster democracy, but those days are gone and those who have grown up in the shadow of constant lies and propaganda don’t realize what has been done to them. I hope this article will open the eyes of the younger people, or at least start the process. Thank you CN for publishing it.
It should be noted that virtually from the beginning of the republic, even during the post revolution confederacy, the interests of the wealthy-elite-ruling class (whatever we may want to call them) took priority. Check out the history of the post revolution farmer uprisings. Not very pretty.
Maybe it is more accurate that this episode speaks to the illusion of democracy more than the dissolution.
Always well said by Mr Hedges. Ill stand in solidarity on the front lines should a strike occur. Ive been hoping these brothers and sisters strike for some time now. Only leverage they have. Though this is a universal labor front, of all stripes and colors. E e should all show up in solidarity.
At the same time, I’ve quietly quit my job. I refuse to reinforce the status quo. Its my own minuscule way at taking back a fair system. It is not out of laziness or inability, but out of spite toward the 1% and above.
“At the same time, I’ve quietly quit my job”
Out of curiosity, how do you support yourself? Apparently working is optional for you.