On July 18, President Biden attacked the rights of rail workers to strike. He did this by issuing an executive order to create a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to mediate an ongoing labor dispute between rail companies in the United States and 115,000 rail workers organized in twelve different unions. Under this order, the workers cannot strike for 60 days while mediators appointed by Biden try to work things out between the companies and the unions.
Working in the industry has become a nightmare. Workers are forced to work on-call 24/7, which greatly disrupts their abilities to plan their lives outside of work. They are facing increasingly punitive attendance policies that allow them to be disciplined more easily by management if they do miss work for various reasons. In addition, workers did not receive a raise throughout the three-year life of their last contract. And now massive inflation is slashing their real income.
Recently, 99.5% of workers in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union voted to reject a new contract proposal and strike in response to these deteriorating working conditions in the industry. After this and other unions’ votes, the strike could have begun on July 18, but Biden’s executive order made strike action illegal for 30 days and ordered the PEB to come up with recommendations to resolve the dispute in the same timeframe. Biden’s commission is not a neutral body, with all 3 members appointed on the commission having spent their careers “mediating” similar labor disputes in favor of the bosses. After the recommendations are made, the order imposes yet another 30-day “cooling off” period during which the union and bosses are supposed to review recommendations and strike action by the workers continues to be illegal.
The whole point of Biden creating this board is to avert a strike, and to defang this potential struggle before it can develop by channeling it into legalistic methods of resolution. A national rail strike would represent a crisis for Biden and the bosses as it would further destabilize supply chains and put real economic pressures on the rail industry and large sections of the capitalist class who derive their profits from reliable rail transportation of goods to and from their businesses.
This whole experience shows how the law is set up to act against workers’ interests, and that the only way we will be able to defend our interests is by organizing ourselves while recognizing that the bosses’ law is our enemy. We make the whole economy, including the railroads, run. The bosses can’t do it without us. This struggle is not over, and it remains to be seen whether workers’ power on the job will win the day.