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Notes on America’s Railroads

A Working-Class View

February 12, 2023

Manhattan’s High Line is a must stop for any tourist looking for a complete New York experience. It knifes down the West Side from the shadow of the Javits Center to the front door of the Whitney Museum. It renders a view of the Hudson River. It also offers a glimpse of how railroads existed in an earlier time. From the 1930s until the 1980s the New York Central, and later Conrail, delivered railroad cars to warehouses, garment factories and meat packing plants along the High Line’s one and a half miles.

Just a few miles from the High Line’s southern terminus on Gansevoort Street, is where the action for today’s railroads can be found: Wall Street. Once Wall Street played the role of piper while railroad managers called the tune. By sometime in the early 2000s they switched places.

Railroads have always been about profits, and, of course they were not exempt from capital’s newest assault that began in the late 1970s. No industry and no community escaped capitalism’s brutal restructuring. But railroads presented several challenges to the iron heel of neoliberalism, it just took a little longer to bring it down on rail labor’s neck.

First, unlike some manufacturing, railroads cannot be moved to Bangladesh or Mexico. Second, it’s hard to bring uniform discipline to an industry that stretches across 140,000 miles of track. Although burdened with 12 inadequate craft unions, the major railroads are totally unionized, a situation built into the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Finally, there are rules, a glut of rules, some national, some specific to each carrier, some local. On their side, the bosses have technology.

My railroad career began in December of 1970 and ended in February of 2009. In the early years, just before the worst attacks by management, there was still enough slack in the system to make the life of a railroad worker bearable. Kim Moody describes the class relationship still prevailing in my first decade, the 1970s: “This was the era of rank and file rebellion, in which blue collar workers went on the offensive against their bosses, and often the union leaders as well, in a fight against speed up, deteriorating working conditions and real wages.”

I worked as a switchman, brakeman, yard conductor and occasionally as a foot-board yardmaster. I witnessed many of the changes – mergers, cutbacks, and downsizing – that marked those years. But, I doubt I would last a month on today’s railroads.

Glassdoor is an American website that allows current and former employees to review companies. In a 2020 survey Glassdoor rated the 17 worst U.S. companies to work for. Number five from the top – or bottom – was the CSXT Railroad, clocking in as number two was the Northfolk Southern (NS) and there, at number one, stood my old exploiter, the Union Pacific (UP). How did an industry that was once the gold standard of blue collar jobs become such a pariah? Before I can answer that question, and discuss the recent No Strike fiasco, we’ll need a little dive into history.

The past is never dead, it’s not even past. True for Faulkner, true for American railroad workers. Much of the defining class relations between railway labor and management has its roots in three historic defeats. The uprising of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the Great Shopmen’s Strike of 1922. All over a century ago, all with consequences reaching into the present.

Almost from the dawn of railroading, workers used strikes to defend their standard of living. The first recorded railroad strike took place on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) in June of 1831. Those early strikes were sporadic outbursts and rarely spread far from their origins.

1877 was different. It began when workers on the B&O Railroad in Martinsburg, West Virginia had their pay slashed. Militant actions soon hop-scotched across the country and were joined by workers in other industries. Coming just six years after the Paris Commune it scarred the bejesus out of the American ruling class. President Rutherford B. Hayes called out federal troops. Since 1877 was also the year when Reconstruction was prematurely ended, many of those troops were fresh from duty in the South. Over 100, mostly strike supporters, were killed in the 52 days the strike lasted.

The use of federal troops and the National Guard were one legacy of the strike. After the strike was crushed a wave of new National Guard Armories were built in cities across the country. I grew up across the alley from one such armory on the West Side of Chicago.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was, in a way, the strike that came too soon. If the fledgling but rapidly growing American Railroad Union (ARU) had a chance to develop fully, American labor history might have been entirely different. Just two months before the Pullman Strike, the ARU won a stunning victory over the Great Northern Railroad. The ARU was something new on the block: an industrial union. There had been a few examples of industrial unions in the U.S., but nothing on the scale of the ARU.

I worked as a switchman, brakeman, yard conductor and occasionally as a foot-board yardmaster. I witnessed many of the changes – mergers, cutbacks, and downsizing – that marked those years. But, I doubt I would last a month on today’s railroads.

The concept of industrial unionism is supposed to be, “everybody in, nobody out.”  Despite ARU President and future socialist Eugene Debs’ opposition, just days before the Pullman Strike began, the ARU took a crucial step backward when the delegates at its first convention voted 214 to 212 to exclude Blacks from membership. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the operating Brotherhoods and the carriers, to their everlasting shame, collaborated in this Jim Crow tradition.

The defeat in Pullman set back the cause of industrial unionism until the rise of the CIO in the 1930s. Once again federal troops, this time dispatched by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, were essential in defeating the Pullman Strike. Debs, however, learned a crucial lesson when he came to this conclusion: “I have been a Democrat all my life, and I’m ashamed to admit it.”

The last of the triad of massive railroad strikes was the Great Shopmen’s Strike of 1922. Like its predecessors of 1877 and 1894, the strike was triggered by a carrier mandated wage cut. The cuts only effected seven of the then sixteen unions and there was no understanding about honoring picket lines. Although 400,000 workers walked out on the first day, there was not the 100% solidarity needed to win a victory. Injunctions rained down on the strikers. No federal troops this time, but federal marshals stood shoulder to shoulder with company goons to break the strike.

The strike of 1922 led to the passage of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) four years later. Perhaps the best summation of how the RLA functions comes from an inside source. In 1970, a woman named Beatrice Burgoon was the director of the Office of Labor Management Relations Service. In a revealing interview with Cornell University professor Sidney Rosen, Burgoon said “The Railway Labor Act of course, was built to delay, and this is on purpose, because the Government has never been ready to accept a nationwide railroad strike. So the RLA was passed in order to prevent such a strike, to insure continued railroad operations through a series of delaying and delaying and delaying tactics.” At the end of the delaying comes the Presidential Emergency Board, Congress, and the inevitable “National Emergency.” All the rest is so much needless theater.

1970, the year that Ms. Burgoon “spilled the beans,” was also the year that began my 38 plus year railroad career.  In October of 1970 I was living in San Diego when I received a call from Frank Lovell asking me to move back to Chicago and get a job on the railroad, specifically a job organized by the United Transportation Union (UTU). Frank Lovell was a respected leader of the US Socialist Workers Party’s doing trade union work, and a veteran of the 1930’s Sailors of the Pacific Union and a participant in numerous strikes.

I moved back to Chicago and applied at a half dozen railroads, all of which had want ads in the Chicago newspapers. Three of these railroads wanted to hire me as a switchman or brakeman. The Chicago Northwestern Railroad (CNW) had two large UTU locals in Chicago and was the logical choice. Local 577 had about 800 members and local 524 about 500.  I ended up at the CNW.

The reason I was asked to move back to Chicago was to work on a project called the “Right to Vote on Contracts” Committee (RTVC).  The UTU was formed in 1969 as the result of a four way fusion of smaller craft unions. The UTU’s constitution did not allow a membership vote on contracts. A rank and file committee to change this deficiency began in the Milwaukee Road local 1433, located in suburban Chicago. In just two years the RTVC spread across the country and was a force at the first International (so called because it extended into Canada) UTU convention in August of 1971. The motion to include the Right to Vote on Contracts was narrowly defeated on the floor of the convention by a vote of 848 to 815. (The UTU was folded into SMART, Sheet Metal Air and Railroad Trainmen in 2011).

Even though the 1970s were the last years of the post-war economic boom, storm clouds began to appear on the horizon. Beginning around 1979 several hammer blows came crashing down on the heads of America’s working class. First came the Volcker Recession. On the railroad this brought the first major layoffs in 20 years. These layoffs went deep into my roster, but with nine years seniority I managed to keep working. However, I was forced back on the yard extra board (the list of available workers, with no regular assignment, used to fill-in “as needed.”)

In 1981 Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike and destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in the process. Ironically, PATCO along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had both endorsed Reagan in 1980. There was a chance for organized labor to draw a line in the sand in defense of PATCO. Instead, our unions just had sand kicked in their faces.

In 1980, there was a chance for organized labor to draw a line in the sand in defense of PATCO. Instead, our unions just had sand kicked in their faces.

The Staggers Act of 1980 deregulated railroads to a large extent. Around the same time safety laws were changed allowing the railroads to remove cabooses from all over-the-road trains. Now, instead of four sets of eyes in a traditional road crew (engineer, head brakeman, conductor and rear brakeman in the caboose), there were End of Train Devices (EOTs).1EOTs are devices attached to the last car. They are radio connected and relay information to the lead engine, in particular the air pressure that controls the train brakes. With the end of cabooses went the traditional four-person crew. Now there were only engineers and conductors on road trains. By this time, firemen, equivalent to co-pilots on commuter trains, were eliminated, often leaving over 1,000 passengers with only one person in the cab. Switching crews went from four to three and finally two. In the late 1990s came the final abomination, remote controlled switch engines, which replaced engineers with remote control “black boxes” carried by a yard foreman.

Mergers and acquisitions are a favorite pastime for the Wall Street boys. Whole departments are devoted to the pursuit of big fish eating the smaller fish, or even the medium size fish. Stock prices soar, money changes hands, competition vanishes, and market share goes to the winners. In just eight short years, between 1988 and 1996, the Union Pacific gobbled up three major class one railroads. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas (The Katy), was the first to go, followed by my old boss, the Chicago and Northwestern. Ultimately, the giant competitor, The Southern Pacific, was swallowed up. Anti-trust laws be damned, the Union Pacific was the king of the hill.

While the big guys were cannibalizing each other, an opposite phenomenon was also transpiring: spin offs. If a subdivision wasn’t quite profitable enough, or a given line didn’t make super profits, they were lopped off like so much flotsam and jetsam. Note the words, “profitable enough.”  Depending on the criteria, there are over 15 regional railroads, and over 600 short line railroads moving traffic over the shiny rails. Most of them are the children of the big Seven, not because they weren’t profitable, but because they weren’t profitable enough. Trust me, if they didn’t make money, they wouldn’t be in business.

Every veteran railroader can tell stories about how the carriers purposely sabotaged service to smaller customers. In a recent Intercept article, Ryan Grim remarked, “railroads have abused market power by refusing to carry low margin loads from smaller businesses and otherwise cutting their capacity.” This systematic shunning of less than superstar customers has impacted rural America especially hard. Much like the fate of American medicine, hospitals and clinics, railroad investments went to where large profits could be made, and flyover country would suffer.

Some economists call what began to happen in the 1980’s the Shareholders’ Revolution. As revolutions go, it was a rather drawn out process. But, if that Revolution had a Bastille Day it came in 1982 when the Securities and Exchange Commission made it legal for companies to buy back their own shares. By the time the calendar flipped to the new millennium, the shareholders were – with the exception of the BNSF – calling the tune on how the railroads were run.

In 2006, the CSXT had a work force of 36,000, by 2021 it had shed almost 16,000 workers. In those same 16 years its stock price rose a jaw dropping 1,520 per cent. And dividends shot up an astronomical 1,850 per cent. Meanwhile, the company’s Operating Ratio2Operating Ratio compares the total operating expense to net sales. This metric is most commonly used for industries which require a large percentage of revenue to maintain operations, such as railroads. An OR of 80, or lower, is considered optimal. Currently, major lines OR are: the UP: 57.2, NS: 60.1, CSXT: 58.4 plummeted from 78 per cent down to 59 per cent. To paraphrase Marx, for Wall Street, Operating Ratio is Moses and the Prophets.

According to Surface Board Chairman Martin Oberman, U.S. railroads have paid out $196 billion in stock buybacks or dividends to its shareholders over the last ten years. In 1982 the Southern Railroad merged with the Norfolk and Western to form the NS, since then it has paid a dividend on its common stock for 161 consecutive quarters. All six of the publicly traded Class One railroads have a similar story to tell (Warren Buffett’s privately owned BNSF is just as greedy and just as profitable).

U.S. railroads became super money making machines by squeezing their workers almost to the breaking point. Exactly how they did this is the key to understanding the Great Almost Strike of 2022.

Scientific Management, like so much of the bosses’ lexicon, is a fancy term for a simple concept: extract as much labor power in the shortest period of time from as few workers as you can—speed-up! Around the turn of the 20th Century Frederick Taylor followed around a luckless laborer he designated as “Schmidt.” He figured out how to exploit “Schmidt” to the max, and called it a science. Apply that tactic to car inspectors, track workers, conductors, engineers and the rest of the railroad workforce and you have the secret formula.

Somehow the most pro-labor president in American history entrusted three pro-company arbiters to recommend an agreement that would have warmed the heart of Hunter Harrison.

Taylor’s reincarnation was a railroad executive named E. Hunter Harrison. Harrison – a true gun for hire – served as CEO for four different large railroads in his career. His big contribution to Scientific Management came in 1993 while he was the CEO of the Illinois Central. He dubbed his brainchild Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). In one variation or another, PSR has been implemented across the industry.

PSR is all about assembling the longest trains possible in the shortest possible time with the fewest possible workers. Here’s how it’s done: 1) Cut the time inspecting cars on outbound trains, from the traditional 3 minutes per car down to a standard of 1.4 minutes per car 2) Build monster trains of 3 miles or more 3) close as many shops and classification yards as possible 4) defer routine maintenance on all equipment 5) emphasize point to point trains at the expense of any potential customers in between 6) when the workforce is cut to the bone, be sure to cut it some more.

Nineteenth-century railroad baron William Vanderbilt famously said, “The public be damned.” 140 years later Warren Buffett described PSR this way, as “forcing customers to adapt to the railroads, rather than the other way around.”

PSR created a new culture that manifests itself across the industry. This new culture is reflected in what observers refer to as “Quality of Life” issues, or what the media have trivialized to “sick days.” Reducing the issue to sick days glosses over the draconian situation that the operating department finds itself in.

Even in my era, getting time off for engineers and conductors was always an uncertain interplay between workers and “callers.”3A “Caller” calls employees (engineers and conductors) to come to work within 90 minutes to 2 hours to report to work. (The formula for “laying off”4“Laying off” is requesting permission for time off work was: first, having “good and sufficient reason,” second, “requesting permission.” Depending on how much slack there was in the system, there was always a chance the “caller” – no matter how dire your reason was – would deny your request. The big difference today is there is zero slack.

Two separate BNSF engineers explained the situation this way: “We do not have weekends. We do not have a routine, or acceptable schedule. Every day is the same to us.” The second hogger5“Hogger” is railroad slang for engineer  added: “I average 110 hours a week away from home. I have no scheduled days off At All. I am on call 24/7 and work all hours day and night.” Meanwhile, he added, “…the railroad makes me watch training films on the importance of sleeping well.”

Long hours, irregular schedule, working nights, in short the circadian trifecta.

Three years ago the last national railroad contract expired and the countdown to a new contract began. In 2020 the twelve railroad craft unions breathed a sigh of relief. At last, their prayers were answered. Joe Biden was the new president. In September 2021 Joe offered this reassurance, “You know, you’ve heard me say many times: I intend to be the most pro union president in American history.” On the railroads, it’s called “shanty talk,” and in the general population, it’s called bullshit.

On July 12th of last year the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) voted 99.5% to authorize a strike. Just four months later, this same membership voted narrowly to accept a subpar contract with no major concession from the carriers. What happened in those four months? For one thing, the RLA did what Beatrice Burgoon said it was supposed to do: delay! Another factor was the media beating of the war drums about “supply chain crisis.”  Plus, the Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) had made its final recommendations.

Somehow the most pro-labor president in American history entrusted three pro-company arbiters to recommend an agreement that would have warmed the heart of Hunter Harrison. Instead of using the much touted “bully pulpit” to wring a few concessions for unions, Biden folded like a Boy Scout knife bathed in WD-40. He urged Congress to accept the PEB mandate Without Modification and to do it immediately!

If it’s rare for most incumbent union presidents to lose elections, then it is unheard of in rail unions. But it happened to BLET president Dennis Pierce, who lost to Edward Hall, a working engineer and local BLET chairman from Arizona. Just weeks earlier, Pierce was standing next to Joe Biden when the sell-out PEB decision was announced.

Of course, bourgeois politicians are going to be bourgeois politicians, but the role of the DSA House members stands out as particularly odious. I’ve seen complicated rationales about how the much vaunted “squad” were playing three dimensional chess. “Intellectual summersaults,” is how Joe Allen nailed it in a Tempest article. Think of them as “The Squad that Bailed.” Need it even be said? Working people need their own party.



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