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I’m A Railroad Worker

Above photo: Railway maintenance worker tightening bolts on a track. Getty Images.

Don’t listen to corporations’ attempts to demonize us.

Railroad workers are the ones fighting to save what’s left of the supply chain from corporate greed. If you stand with us, we can win.

As I think about generations gone by, the values people held, the moral compasses that guided them, I can’t help but wonder what our ancestors would say about the mess this country is in today. Somewhere along the line, I think, a paradigm shift occurred: We stripped this country down and sold every scrap of society and community to the highest bidder, while the things that we used to hold near and dear withered and rotted like old fruit. We’ve forgotten what the Constitution of this great nation says, we hate each other for our differences rather than embracing them, and our leaders—the purported champions of the oppressed, the self-styled protectors of all things fair and just—have become our enemies.

The corporations controlling next to every facet of our daily lives are well aware of this, and they are actively capitalizing on the chaos at our expense. Sowing division and pitting working people against one another is good business, even if the “cost” of doing such business is the unraveling of our social fabric. I can see this happening every time I turn on the TV and watch talking heads telling us how racist and smug we ordinary Americans are, how we cling too tightly to our guns and religion. And I could see this happening this week, in real time, as the business class, along with the corporate media and bought-off politicians who serve them, worked overtime ahead of a potential national rail shutdown to convince the public that we, the nation’s freight railroad workers, are somehow the villains. But I implore you to listen to any railroader out there. Talk to us, even just for a few minutes. You’ll see who the real villains in this story are, and you’ll understand why we were, and are still, prepared to strike.

Even as a kid, I was always fascinated by trains—every aspect of them. I love them. Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, I remember making my mom and grandma run with me to the local station down the road in Hanover to watch the train pass through every night at 11 o’clock. Now, as an adult, I’ve spent the past two decades working on the railroads, and I’ve given everything I have to this industry. But, as if that wasn’t enough, the rail companies want to take more: they want more job cuts; they want single-man crews operating these giant locomotives; they want to automate more jobs by relying on unproven technology that puts not only us, but the American people, our country, and our economy at risk.

Once upon a time, I took pride in my work, enjoyed what I did, and felt like part of something greater. I don’t feel that way anymore.

How can I, after bearing witness to the devastation that voraciously profit-seeking companies have wreaked upon the industry I love, the supply chain we all depend on, and the people I work with? How can I, after the rail carriers—in a now-infamous passage that is seared onto the brains of every railroad worker—told President Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) that “capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor”? In a statement on the PEB’s official report released by Railroad Workers United, an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity “caucus” of railroad workers, words like “unappreciated,” “vacant,” “betrayal,” “discontentment,” and “bitter” highlight the frustration and defeat we are feeling. However, I know that we, the people who make the railroads run, are feeling the same thing that so many other hardworking Americans feel in their daily lives and at their jobs, and we are fighting the same corruption and corporate malfeasance that has destroyed this country.

Many of us across the nation—and, indeed, within the rail industry—are feeling the crushing weight being placed upon the backs of middle- and working-class America by our corporate overlords. Right now, all around us, people are suffering, trying to determine how they will pay their bills and what they can afford to eat this week. The things that shouldn’t matter as much as they do today are robbing us of the time we should be spending focusing on our loved ones and our time together. All the while, for the most part, our government sits idly by. (The only time most of us hear from politicians, it seems, is when their midterm ad campaigns berate us on the TV, on the radio, and online.)

It is for this very reason that I can understand why people around the country are concerned about the calamitous impact a national rail strike or rail lockout could have on the economy and an already-creaking supply chain. What I hope people understand in return is that railroad workers are the ones fighting to save what’s left of the supply chain from the same corporate greed that has upended the nation’s freight rail industry. If you stand with us, we can win. Working Americans share so much more in common than we realize. This cancer has just about beaten us—this relentless corporate pillage, this squeezing of the American worker for every last drop of productivity, has already taken so much from us, and this may be our last chance to unite and fight back as a collective group.

America’s rail companies are on the verge of driving their employees to a strike, but as I described recently on two podcast appearances, they have been driving us to this point for years. This week, in a characteristically underhanded move that put their crooked dealings on national display, they have been ignoring their common carrier obligations and placing embargoes on interstate commerce in the form of supply chain stoppages, causing havoc for customers, shippers, travelers, and our already fragile economy still reeling from COVID-19. Of course, this begs the question: If the deadline for a strike or a lockout was set for Sept. 16, is what the railroads were doing ahead of that deadline legal? At the very least, it was reckless and irresponsible. At worst, it was “corporate terrorism.” They have been holding the supply chain hostage to get what they want.

So what the hell has Congress been doing about it? Is it not the job of Congress to ensure the safety and viability of our nation? Are they not employees and servants of the American people? Have they forgotten the oath of office that they took to defend the nation from enemies both foreign and domestic? If that is, in fact, the case, how can anyone look at the behavior of these large corporations and not deem them a domestic enemy?

At some point in its life cycle, everything we use and consume touches a train somewhere. To say America will be crippled by even a short railroad shutdown would fall woefully short of describing the devastation: Grain would rot inside railcars; refrigerated foods would spoil as chilled cars run out of fuel; gasoline and other fuels normally delivered to market would become scarce because refineries would close due to lack of raw materials; chickens and other livestock would starve to death or be euthanized; and countless other atrocities would take place at the hands of these corporate elitists. And will anything happen to them? Will they face any consequences for what they’ve done?

At this point, I believe a strike is nearly impossible to avoid. I believe the railroads think we won’t do it, or they are confident the government won’t permit it. They’re playing a game of Russian Roulette—it’s a calculated risk that they smugly believe won’t come back to bite them in the ass.

Yes, the White House announced yesterday morning that a tentative agreement has been reached between the carriers and union leaders to avert a shutdown, but a tentative agreement is just that—tentative—until the rank-and-file members have their say and vote on it. I don’t know what will happen in that regard, but I caution readers to not be so sure that this deal will be ratified and a strike will be avoided. It is also worth noting that just about everything being reported by mainstream media is inaccurate and heavily biased. The railroads are being hailed as heroes in this mess while the employees are villainized. And Congress has predictably sided with the corporations throughout all of this, which shows that neither party is really for the working man. We had hoped that the combination of a Democrat-controlled legislative and executive branch would bring about meaningful and real change, but we were wrong. Only Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter DeFazio have stood alongside us through this difficult bargaining process.

As we inch closer and closer to a national rail shutdown, it has become clear every step of the way that the railroads and corporations at large are testing our resolve. They are playing the long game with their union-busting tactics and emotional abuse in the hopes of breaking the spirits and backs of their workers. They’ve already broken the backs of so many families in the railroad towns that they’ve decimated in the name of Wall Street, desecrating the legacies and history written generations ago by men and women who built our nation. It is with this in mind that I implore my fellow Americans who are suffering to unite behind this movement, the workers’ movement. If we don’t do something to stop this, who will?

Never in my adult life have I felt a greater sense of urgency concerning our future than I do now.  In our leaders, from the local to the national level, we see callousness to our plight and self-serving malfeasance the likes of which is nearly incomprehensible. The very fabric of our great country is being unwoven before our eyes while the top 1% hoards 99% of the wealth. President Biden said he will be the most “pro-labor President you ever had.”  Well, we’ll see how “pro-labor” our government officials really are when we, the rank-and-file railroad workers, get to look at the details of this tentative agreement.

Meanwhile, deep inside the hollers of America, across the corn fields of the Midwest, the valleys of the Northeast, and the mountains dividing sea from shining sea, a growing movement is forming. A rumbling of activity one could liken to distant thunder, or the imminent eruption of a volcano, is signaling the storm that is about to be unleashed upon those who have awoken a sleeping giant. No more shall the underrepresented be oppressed, the underpaid be spat upon, the overworked forgotten, or the working American be thrown to the wayside. We are America, and we will win this war.

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