Read the full transcript below.
From unions in the United States fighting to save our supply chain from the destruction wrought by corporate tycoons, Wall Street vampires, and bought-off politicians, to the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leading the fight against austerity politics and ruling-class union busting in the United Kingdom, to rail workers with the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in France joining their compatriots in the streets in a general strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal attack on the country’s beloved pension system, rail workers around the world are fighting different battles in the same war: the class war.
In this special international episode, we bring together a panel of rail workers from the US, UK, and France to talk about what they are up against, what the struggle looks like in their corners of the world, and what we can all do to connect those struggles and build international worker solidarity.
Panelists include: Ross Grooters of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Railroad Workers United in the US; Cat Cray and Clayton Clive of the RMT in the UK; Matthieu Bolle-Reddat of the CGT Cheminots Versailles in France.
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Ross Grooters: Hello everybody. I’m Ross Grooters. I’m a co-chair with Railroad Workers United, and I work as a freight locomotive engineer.
Cat Cray: Hi everyone. My name’s Cat Cray, and I work for The Tube on London Underground. I work on the stations. I’m a health and safety rep for the RMT Union.
Clayton Clive: Hi, I’m Clayton. I work on the railway as a train conductor in the UK. I’m also an RMT branch secretary for the Manchester South Branch.
Matthieu Bolle-Reddat: Hello everybody. Thank you, Max, for your kind invitation. I’m Matthieu. I’m a train driver in Paris, in Versailles, basically the city neighbor of Paris. I’m general secretary of the TGT Trade Union of Railway Workers in Versailles.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership within In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
As y’all heard, we have a really exciting and really special episode for y’all today. We told y’all in the last episode that season six was going to start with a bang and that we’ve got a whole hell of a lot of work to do. We are making good on that promise because, as you guys probably know, whether or not you follow our Working People social media accounts where we’re trying to post updates on this stuff daily, but even if you don’t follow those, I’m sure you’ve been hearing the news that shit is popping off in the UK, shit is popping off in France, and shit continues to deteriorate and we are going to get to the popping off point. Don’t you worry about that here in the United States.
We’ve been doing our best to cover the myriad of strikes going on in the UK. As you guys may remember, we were honored to have Cat and Clayton on the show back in the summer, where we were also joined by the Great Gaz Jackson and Mel Mullings, also of the RMT, where we had a big panel talking about the rolling strikes that the RMT rail workers have been waging over in the UK. Those continue as we speak, but they are not alone. As we have seen over the course of the past six, seven months, more and more workers across the United Kingdom are hitting the picket line and saying enough is enough, from the postal workers to civil servants, to teachers and university workers, to nurses at the NHS. It’s a really, really vital time right now as workers in the UK, like workers across Europe, in the United States, and around the world, are facing a cost of living crisis.
Gas and energy prices are through the roof, rent is through the roof. Wages are not through the roof. As always, workers are really bearing the burden of the rigged economic system that we have today. Workers are, as I said, hitting the streets to fight back, taking industrial action, collective action. We all need to support them however we can, but they are really up against it. They are up against years and decades of austerity politics. As we speak, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Tory Government are trying to force through a draconian anti-strike law that would essentially force any union taking industrial action or going on strike, as we say here in the US, would have to essentially cross their own picket lines and maintain a level of “minimum service” during a strike.
Like if the RMT goes on strike, if the nurses go on strike, teachers, anyone, they have to maintain a government determined level of minimum service to essentially minimize the damage that a strike causes, when causing that kind of damage is exactly the fucking point of a strike.
At the same time, you know that we have been covering relentlessly the crisis on the rail system here in the United States. Ross and I have had a number of occasions to collaborate together for other podcasts and YouTube shows and live streams that we’ve put on at The Real News and elsewhere. But this is actually the first time that we’ve been honored to have them on Working People, so I’m very excited about that.
But yeah, all the stuff that we covered last year on the US Freight Rail System is not getting any fucking better. In fact, it’s all getting worse. As we speak right now, there’s a giant flame ball in Ohio because Norfolk Southern had another goddamn derailment. I’ve already lost count of all the derailments that Norfolk Southern alone has had since scab Joe Biden forced rail workers to accept a contract back in late November to “avert a national rail shutdown”.
And then, lo and behold, after Biden and Congress essentially gave the rail carriers who have destroyed the railroads by destroying railroad workers, gave them everything that they wanted, and since then, the rail companies have just been jacking up their stock buybacks, laughing all the way to the bank, derailment after derailment has been happening. And now in Ohio, a truly catastrophic derailment has taken place where a train carrying a lot of hazardous materials has just derailed. Now authorities are doing a “controlled explosion”, essentially burning all of that hazardous material. We’re inevitably going to find out about how that is poisoning the entire area. We’re already getting horrific reports of animals and fish dying in the area. That’s a story that is unfolding as we speak, but it really underscores the severity of everything that rail workers were telling us all throughout last year.
Ross and Railroad Workers United have been invaluable in getting those worker voices and perspectives out there in the public. I’m genuinely honored and excited to have Ross on the same call here as Cat and Clayton. We’re going to do a little bit of editing magic because our boy Matthieu Bolle-Reddat of the CGT in France is on the streets as we are recording this, so Matt and I are going to record separately, and we’re going to splice his answers to the questions we’re going to talk about here today into the final conversation. For you guys, it’ll seem like we’re all just having a continuous conversation, but we want to acknowledge that Matthieu is on the streets right now because French workers, not just rail workers like Matthieu, but like they did three years ago in 2019 and the beginning of 2020, French workers are striking across France against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal efforts to raise the retirement age, revamp the country’s beloved pension system. French workers are fucking pissed about it.
In true French fashion, they are hitting the streets to let the establishment know just how they feel. We’re sending all our love and solidarity to Matthieu. We look forward to recording with him separately and including him in the final version of this conversation. But if you guys haven’t already, you should go check out the episode that we released three years ago with Matthieu and seven other French workers who were participating in that general strike when Macron first tried to revamp the pension system. You should go check out the interview that I did with Matthieu for Breaking Points recently, where we talked about why he and his fellow workers are fighting so hard to save their pension system against this neoliberal attack.
That is the lay of the land. I apologize for talking so much upfront, but I just wanted to make sure that everyone listening to this understands, A, from a bird’s eye view level what is going on in the US, the UK, and France, to try to pull together those threads that we’ve been reporting on on this podcast and at The Real News over the past year, but this is really the first time that we’ve been able to bring those threads together to get rail workers in the US, the UK, and France on the same episode, which I think is really, really important and exciting.
We’re going to turn things over to our amazing guests now to hear from them about how situations in these respective countries have developed since we last checked in with them, where things currently stand with the strikes, with the anti-strike laws, with the top-down pension reforms. But also, we want to talk about where things are headed, what we all across the UK, France, the US and around the world can do to support our fellow workers in their struggles, and also what workers in those countries can do and are doing to support one another, because that is ultimately what we need to really drive home here. The capitalist class does not play by national rules or limit itself to national boundaries, and so we cannot either. Solidarity must be international. We are, again, very honored to have our four guests here to talk to us and to put that principle into practice.
That’s enough from me. Why don’t we go to our amazing panel now. Ross, I want to start with you because, like I said, we were interviewing rail workers for the better part of the past year about the crisis on the railroads, the long path that got us here, what was going to happen if a national rail strike or rail lockout occurred in September or December, all crescendoing in a big, sloppy wet fart of a betrayal when President Joe Biden, the “most pro-union president we’ve ever seen”, urged Congress to force rail workers to accept a contract that the majority of rail workers voted against, and essentially make a national rail strike illegal.
I wanted to ask you, for our listeners, what’s been going on for rail workers since then? Can you give us an update over the past couple months on, has any of this gotten better? What you and your fellow workers are taking from the whole saga of the past three years, what you think folks out there listening need to be paying attention to?
Ross Grooters: Sure. Thanks Max. You talked about starting off this season with a bang, and you already talked about what’s happened in Ohio. That’s something we’ve definitely been trying to say is a real possibility. We saw the same thing in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, almost a decade ago now. It’s not a matter of if these things are going to happen, it is when and where. We’ve been trying to share that for a long time now, going back to resolutions against these long and heavy trains that the carriers have been trying to run.
There are safety measures that can be implemented. Any time there’s a big accident like in East Palestine, there’s no one cause, there’s a series of failures. Unfortunately, the response is usually to blame workers. The last point of contact is just, hey, it’s something that the operator did, or, it’s maintenance of an individual car. No, it’s not. It’s systemic. These things have been building to this point for decades.
One of the things that really shocked me last year in the middle of the contract fight was we had a major derailment in my area. I went to look for news about that derailment, and it hadn’t been posted yet. There weren’t media stories out. But what I saw was over the last year, year and a half, so many derailments in my state that I did not even know about. It used to be that when there was a derailment, there’d be a big safety briefing. There would always be talk about what had happened. It would be a distinct enough event that we as workers would be finding out what happened, what went wrong, and why. It’s become so commonplace to experience these kinds of events that we’re not even… We don’t even know all of the derailments that are happening. It’s that bad.
When we talk about labor, of course we did get forced back to work, but the organizing hasn’t stopped. We definitely want to push for a nationalization of our system. Hopefully that’s a little bit better than what we experience with some of our colleagues across the pond, but that’s definitely been a conversation we’ve been having with rail workers and our allies. That’s something we’re going to continue to push. The best way we can fight is to go on the offensive. This is a way for us to take the fight directly to these greedy corporations that are making billions of dollars and sacrificing communities like East Palestine for Wall Street profits.
Maximillian Alvarez: Just to flesh that out a tiny bit more, for folks who maybe don’t remember all the conversations that we had on this show alone last year. Because the thing I always think of is when I interviewed a longtime train dispatcher, Jay, who talked about, predicted in very painful detail — And I know he’s not the only one. Like you said, you guys have been warning about this shit for a long time — But it just really struck me that when I interviewed Jay back in the summer, he was like, let me paint a hypothetical scenario to you of how and why a train derailment where a train carrying hazardous materials derails near a population center and how of much of a clusterfuck that’s going to be. And then here we are with the horrific situation in East Palestine that looks so much like what Jay described. Could you say a little bit more, Ross, about how this is the product of those long brewing, systemic issues that you and other rail workers were railing about last year to anyone who would actually listen?
Ross Grooters: Yeah, thanks Max. I tend to look at root causes. I think this is… We’re going to find this is true when we talk to all of our panel, I hope. But what the problem is, is we’re having fewer workers do more work more quickly, and it just creates this perfect storm of unsafe conditions. The rolling stock isn’t being inspected properly, the track isn’t being inspected properly, the locomotives don’t work properly. We’re all doing this under increasingly stressful circumstances where we’re fatigued, and there’s not a margin of error anymore. These things just compound and create these situations where these failures are going to occur.
The carrier response is largely reactionary, no big surprise. It is to blame the worker. Even the contract fight that we had, we’re starting to win that narrative, that battle, so the carrier response is one that’s reactionary. We saw CSX give some employees some paid sick time. That didn’t happen because CSX is a benevolent corporation; that happened because we stood up and fought for it. They’re not going to do enough and we’re going to have to keep pushing them, or we’re going to have to just take it back and run it for the benefit of our nation’s freight infrastructure. Hopefully that answers your question, Max.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh yeah. No, that was great. Again, you guys listening, know RWU Railroad Workers United is really leading the charge here. I would highly recommend folks check out their proposal to nationalize the railroads in the US. That is a policy proposal that tries to address these systemic issues in a way that President Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board really fucking didn’t back in the summer, or the contract that was forced down workers’ throats doesn’t address those root causes. If we want these things to stop happening, maybe we should listen to workers themselves about how to fix the root problem.
Now, Cat, Clayton, I wanted to turn things over to you. I feel like you’ve got a tall task here because so much has happened since we spoke last with our fellow panelists in I think that was early July. Since then, you’ve had a rotating carousel of prime ministers: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak. You’ve had this explosion of industrial action, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the UK in many, many years. And now we’ve got this anti-strike law that the Tories are trying to force through. I didn’t want to make you feel like you have to address everything that’s happened, but for each of y’all, could you walk listeners through a bit about how the situation has evolved with the RMT and across the UK since we last recorded together in the summer?
Cat Cray: Yeah. The last time we spoke last summer, we were one of very few unions taking national or local strike action in the United Kingdom. Roll on to today, and it’s popping off all over the place. We’ve seen unions who haven’t taken strike action in their lifetime — The RCN, the Royal College of Nurses who have never done a strike quite like the one that they undertook recently in their 100-plus years history, down to unions more akin in taking action to the RMT. As you said in your introduction, civil servants, ambulance workers, nurses, posties from the Communication Workers Union, you name it. That has risen and risen and risen.
We’ve had three different Prime Ministers. Our queen died and we got a king. No chance for the republic just yet. Such a shame. Although we do have a current prime minister who is richer than our new king. All gets very confusing, all these billionaires.
But what hasn’t changed is the cost of living crisis. What hasn’t changed is our gas and electricity bills. What hasn’t changed is how much we’re paying in rent, how much we’re paying in mortgages. None of those things have changed, and people are fighting back. We are seeing a more coordinated approach, not quite what you could define as in general strike, but as close as we’re going to get, and people saying, enough is enough. I should earn enough money to pay my bills. I should earn enough money to pay my bills and put a bit away to save. I should earn enough money to pay my bills and be able to go on holiday. All of those things. We’re in the swirling maelstrom of various strike action. Certain employers giving certain offers all over. Clayton I’m sure will speak more about the offer that was rejected today nationally on the railways.
On London Underground, what has changed since last July is that they carry on trying to attack our terms and conditions, exactly as Ross said, less of us to do more work. That fundamental issue comes from a central withdrawing of funding.
Around that – Because I work in public transport, it’s not freight. I move people around from A to B – Is the fundamental question of what service does public transport provide to society? Which is about more than profit and is more complex than proving it makes X amount of money; getting kids to school so they can get an education, getting people to their medical appointments, getting people from A to B so they can meet friends for their own mental health, so they can access open space in a big, sprawling city such as London. The riches are vast and great, but under the guise of capitalism, it’s not unless it makes a profit.
Maximillian Alvarez: Just to really underscore what Cat said there, I was reading as much as I could to prepare for this recording. There was a great interview that the Tribune published with a number of workers from different industries who are taking industrial action. I’m going to read a quote here from a civil servant named Maya Kahn who was interviewed for that piece. Here is what Maya describes, to really drill home for you guys what Cat is describing here with the cost of living crisis, what we’re talking about here. If you’re listening to this, you probably are feeling it yourself. Everyone knows that the cost of everything, from eggs to heating your house, is just astronomical, and something’s got to give. to really put a fine point on that, here’s what Maya Khan told the Tribune:
“I sit at home with multiple jumpers and pairs of socks on. I don’t turn the lights on unless it’s absolutely necessary. All the dishes get washed using cold water. It’s very uncomfortable living like this. It’s difficult when you have to make concessions in order to be able to travel to the office just to do your job. My commute is particularly long and expensive. I tried doing the math to see if it would be cheaper traveling into the office more often where it’s warm instead of turning the heating on at home, but it turns out I can’t afford either.”
That’s what we’re fucking talking about here. When we say cost of living crisis, we mean a goddamn crisis for working people. Clayton, I want to bring you in here and ask, if you could to hop in, speak to whatever’s on the table or bring in anything else that we’re currently missing from your side of the struggle.
Clayton Clive: Yeah. It feels like a long time ago, July, doesn’t it? I suppose that’s because it was, but not… It sort of felt like, in our dispute in particular, not much really happened in this period of time. We finally got an offer a few weeks ago. The offer was a pay cut, basically. It was 5% next year, 4% next year. Nothing about the two years that there was no pay raise. And it was attached to closing every ticket office, tearing apart terms and conditions in a way that people who are usually based in one location could be sent to other locations and they’d get no travel time for that anymore, tearing up your sick pay conditions and stuff like that. They were talking about maybe having to be sick for three days before you get sick pay, and all sorts of attacks on everything that we’ve got for a pay cut. It wasn’t even an offer. It was like, we’re going to tear up everything you’ve got, and we’ll give you a pay cut in return, and you should be grateful for it.
Thankfully, we’ve rejected the offer now, the union, and held a consultation period for branches. Branches sent responses and the executive has chosen to reject the deal without a referendum of every member. In what was a very long, feels like three weeks, maybe, it’s been since we got the offer, it feels like that was too long to reject something that’s so awful and probably didn’t really need consultation to know that that’s the right thing to do is reject that. Because we should be fighting for a no-strings pay raise. Our annual pay negotiations are always based on not selling anything, no strings that are attached. But for some reason, this time around we’re in this position where the government is pulling the strings and has demanded you’ve got to have all these cuts for a few percent.
Things are going in the right direction. At least we’ve had an offer now. That’s something. The action escalated over December and January. In the run-up to that, we were taking a couple of days every month, maybe only one day, one month, and then we didn’t have any action when the queen died.
It’s all felt very slow and stagnant for a while until we got that offer. It’s been nice as well now seeing other strikes, because we had four days over four weeks. We doubled our action in the space of a month. By the end of those picket lines, we’re all a bit tired and weary and worse for wear. Then a week or so later I went to one of the Royal College of Nurses picket lines. It was nice to see a picket line that was full of enthusiasm again, and cheering, and getting beeps and having a great time, whereas we were all a bit tired because it’s been cold and wet and miserable, and we were thinking, remember when we were on strike in summer and it was nice weather and it felt like a good party? It’s been good to see that.
I think one of the most touching things, as well, is when you speak to people from other unions, quite a lot of people say to you when they find out you’re in the RMT, this is thanks to you. It’s not thanks to us. You’ve organized your members. You’ve got people to vote for action. You’ve done all that work. It’s nothing to do with us. But they like to tell you that it’s thanks to the RMT. You’ve kicked this off and started something. It’s very flattering and kind. It gives you a bit of hope, especially when you need a bit of hope to carry on when it felt like the dispute was stagnating, then there does need to be an escalation of action. Now that this offer has been rejected, hopefully action will be escalated, because that’s going to be the only way to get an acceptable offer that isn’t selling your soul.
Ross Grooters: It’s amazing for me to hear what you’re talking about, Clayton, because it was much the same way here in the United States when we were going through negotiations. Not only do these companies not want to give us an adequate pay raise that is going to ensure that we keep up with cost of living, but they want to take back all of these gains that have been made in the past, and they want to make the job even more unbearable than it already is. It’s the same thing. They’re trying to have both things at once.
To me, it’s like, well, okay, if you want those things, if you want to subject your workers to that, shut up and pay me. At least give me money if you’re going to ensure that my work is going to be miserable. Otherwise, I want to have some quality and some downtime and some ability to be able to decompress on the job so that I know that I’m doing it safely. It’s just amazing to see the parallels there. I’m sure it’s a little bit different in the public arena, Cat, but it probably is also very similar.
Cat Cray: I suspect what we all have in common across our industries, be it freight people, be it national rail, be it the tube in London, or the metro system in New York, the bosses’ language is so deliberately gentle and absolutely insincere, and talking about wanting to modernize and catch up with the times. Actually, what they mean is we want to cut you to the bone. We want you to do more with less. We’re going to cut the maintenance down. We’re going to give you more extreme shifts. And you should be thanking us for it.
I get really wound up reading the political games they play with language, just like with how they talk about trade unionism and us being dinosaurs, or union general secretaries being Barons and bosses, and our bosses being leaders. This use of trickery in the linguistics that our bosses use is not unnoticed, and important that we talk about it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, on that note — And I promise we’re going to go to Matthieu in a second to hear about how things are looking in the French context — but I just wanted to hover over this for a second. Because I think, for me, one of the things that really became clearer since we recorded that episode with Cat, Clayton, Mel, and Gaz back in July, again, simultaneously, for Working People, for the Real News, Breaking Points, I was running around trying to cover the crisis on the US freight rail system as much as I could, along with my colleague Mel Buer. I think that side of things, what you guys were just saying, the language of the bosses, the ways that the companies were justifying what they’re doing to you all and your fellow workers, that seemed eerily similar, direct echoes of each other.
Obviously, here in the US, it was very accentuated by the fact that… We’re talking about one of, if not the most profitable industries in the country. Wall Street has figured out that it can extract a shit ton of money from the railroads. Warren Buffet is laughing all the way to the bank right now. I think I got really obsessed with that side of things, until Joe Biden and Congress came and fucked everything up and then we got to talk about how they’re screwing everyone as well.
But it became clear to me as I was watching the updates from you, Cat, you, Clayton, Mel, Gaz, other folks at the RMT, that the government in the UK is playing a more outsized role in fucking up these negotiations than maybe I initially understood. It makes more sense now as we see this rising working class rebellion, this class solidarity, this genuine frustration and anguish and pain over the cost of living crisis, over the results of working after decades of austerity measures, job cuts, cost cutting measures, so on and so forth, people rising up and saying, we can’t make it if we keep going down this road. Something’s got to change.
Yet, the Tories are ramping up the anti-worker shit. They’re responding to this by not taking the radical action necessary, or at least radical in the right direction. They’re trying to essentially undercut workers’ ability to collectively take action to address these things.
That is something that we here in the US are also facing. Because we have a very reactionary Supreme Court that is now fully in the majority with its Trump appointees. It’s firmly in the far right majority. They’re going to be wreaking havoc on the American public for many years to come.
Right now, the Supreme Court is hearing a case called Glacier Northwest Inc. v. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 174. This is a case out of Washington State. I won’t go into the whole details here. We will link for listeners to an interview that I did for Breaking Points where we, me and Terry Gerstein, unpacked what this Supreme Court case is all about and why it’s so dangerous. But what you need to know is that, essentially, if the Supreme Court rules the way we think it’s going to, what the implications of this case would be, that employers can sue unions into oblivion for economic damages incurred during industrial action or strike action, which again, is the whole goddamn point of a strike.
You’re going to have a real chilling effect where people make the cost-benefit analysis: is it worth taking the risk to go on strike if the company can try to basically sue us out of existence? That is one method that the ruling class here, and the employer serving class, is trying to undercut workers’ collective labor power, at the same time that the Tory Government in the UK is trying to, as I mentioned before, push through a law that would force workers to cross their own picket lines if and when they take industrial action.
I just wanted to make sure that that connection was also brought into the conversation. Clayton, Cat, I wanted to ask if you could say a little bit about what the fuck the Tories are thinking, or the role that the government is playing in all of this that we’re talking about right now?
Cat Cray: None of it is a surprise. None of it is new. There’s a bit more energy behind trying to get it through the various stages. It has to go in Parliament to make it happen. We already have had, in our history and in our union’s history, the National Union of Seamen, the NUS, which merged with the National Union of Railwomen, the NUR, and became the RMT. The reason that happened was essentially because the government forced the NUS to be so financially culpable, it was broke. The reason that RMT exists is because of very similar reasons to the court case that you mentioned.
Our government will use any means necessary. It doesn’t really matter which party is in power. They will always paint workers as being unreasonable for asking for reasonable things, for fighting for reasonable things, and for withdrawing our labor for reasonable things. We’re essentially being perpetually gaslighted. Various different tactics are being used, including forcing us to be scabs, to completely neutralize the effects of withdrawing our labor, which is our fundamental and democratic right. And I don’t think it needs to be more complicated than that. We just need to remember we’re not being unreasonable. We’re being perfectly reasonable. The sign of a healthy democracy is our right to strike and withdraw our labor. Therefore, for people to experience the impact of that, and therefore to realize our worth. It’s not complicated.
Clayton Clive: I don’t think there’s very much for me to add. Thanks for doing that so well. One thing that came to mind, though, is I remember a few years ago I was at an RMT Young Members Conference, and we had some international guests. We had a worker there from Texas. I’d been on strike at the time for a long time because they were trying to remove train guards from the train.
He informed me about the right-to-work clause and how he couldn’t strike in Texas. I was like, man, I thought you were from the land of the free. He sort of looks at me a bit mortified, not sure what to think about that. But it completely blew me away that there was somewhere in the Western world that strikes would be illegal when it’s such a fundamental part of democracy, like Cat says.
If you can’t withdraw your labor, you’re basically a surf, aren’t you? You are effectively an indentured laborer, but without the land you get at the end of your internment. I think with the Tories, they try and portray themselves as wanting a high wage economy and wanting low taxes and high wages. Then when some people gather up and they say, oh, we want high wages, the mask slips a little bit. They’re like, oh no. Oh no, we don’t want you to get high wages that way. No, we weren’t talking about high wages for you, we were talking about high wages for us.
I’m not entirely convinced, even if it could get through all the laws, that it’s feasible and possible. How do people choose who’s going to work and who’s not? If it does become law, we just have to hope that there is enough courage for the trade union movement to embrace the traditions of civil disobedience, which we’ve ignored for a very long time.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and the elephant in the room, to also add to this, is that for rail workers, as Ross can attest here in the US, that right has already essentially been stripped. I started reporting on the clusterfuck on the railroads this time last year when I learned that 17,000 conductors and engineers for BNSF railway, which, again, is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is owned by Warren Buffet, had a district court block them from striking because it would do undue harm, irreparable harm to the supply chain. Part, I swear to God, half of my reporting or screaming last year throughout this whole saga was just trying to explain to people that labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act, they’re governed by the Railway Labor Act, which was rammed through a century ago to essentially make it next to impossible for railroad workers to be able to strike. Ross, sorry, I cut you off there.
Ross Grooters: No, you’re great. Yeah, that’s exactly right, Max. People lose sight of that. It wasn’t really congressional action late last year that forced us to return to work. That was already predetermined under the RLA, which passed almost a hundred years ago. I’ll leave it to Cat and Clayton to make any remarks about the dead, but I’m a little more optimistic, because here’s the RMP existing and outliving Boris and Lizzy. It’s great that we can have this conversation, because I think that as workers, the more we realize our power, the more we realize these laws don’t really matter. They’re just made up.
If we look at the history of unions, they were all born out of class struggle. I’m sorry, unions started from nothing before. If they take away our financial instruments, our organizations, we can come together and rebuild those things, and maybe make them better. The phoenix rises from the ashes. I don’t want to lose my union. I am a BLET member. We’re part of the Teamsters Rail Conference. I hope they prevail in that court case. But if they don’t, I think we’re going to survive, and we’re going to find ways to do things even better.
Cat Cray: No one should be surprised by how broken and unfair any judicial system is. Let’s look at who wrote those laws and why, and then let’s look at who rewrote those laws and why, and then let’s look at who’s trying to rewrite those laws and why. It’s a rotten system. It’s rigged. Of course, we should fight and appeal against it, but we should also retain our right to conduct civil disobedience and to say, we do not accept this law. There’s more of us than there are of them. We’re organized. We’re more democratic than they are. We can beat them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Speaking of which, this seems like a perfect segue to bringing our boy Matthieu back into the conversation. Matthieu, I apologize, because I know that I already asked you to do this when we recorded our interview for Breaking Points, but I’m going to make you do it again for Working People listeners who may not have seen that interview, and also put that in conversation with everything that we’re talking about here with Ross, Cat, and Clayton.
No one does civil disobedience like the French. We first connected three years ago when you and your fellow workers were waging what became a general strike across the country against Emmanuel Macron’s proposed changes to the country’s beloved pension system. You guys were shutting shit down. This was right before COVID hit and turned our world upside down. Now Macron, after getting elected again — He’s now in his second and final term — As you told me on Breaking Points, he’s doing it again. He’s trying to do it again.
For Working People listeners, who maybe last heard from you three years ago right before COVID when we did that big compilation episode, I was wondering if you could give folks the backstory here: what was going on in 2019 and 2020 with the strikes, the pension reforms then? If you could walk us through the events from then to now, and tell listeners a bit more about what those strikes look like, who is involved, and why workers like yourself are fighting so hard to save this pension system that it would bring millions of people out to the streets.
Matthieu Bolle-Reddat: As you know, the trade union, the French Trade Union movement, is involved now in the biggest strike in the 21 century in France against pension law, to break our pension system by President Macron. Of course, the roots of this strike, it’s from… In 2019, where President Macron tried for the first time to break our pension system. We organized in this period a huge general strike in France, in the entire country, and the railway worker, and the underground workers, and camaraderie from refinery, and the artists, and the comrades from the collecting garbage in Paris was in the front line, in the vanguard of this movement, because we do an unlimited strike during two months from December in 2019 until February, 2020. And just before the lockdown of the country because of the COVID situation, President Macron took back his bill, so we win in this period.
Now, just after his second term of election, he comes back with a new law. It’s why since the middle of January there were five days of general strike in France to fight that.
Why President Macron wants to break our pension system? Because this pension system is one of the keys of our social security system in France. As you know, maybe, our social security system in France, it comes from the fight during the resistance against Nazi fascist occupation during World War II. The working class, and especially the CGT Union was in the vanguard of this fight inside the countries. We were underground. We take care of weapons. We do sabotage to the right way, et cetera. We fight against the occupation, not just against the Nazis, not just against fascism, not just against foreign army occupation, but for a purpose. Of course, liberate the country, but create and build a new society with more rights to the working class, more socialist society.
It was the act of beginning our social security system. Our social security system is very important for us because it gives to our people the best system of pension in all of the world. For example, we have a tiny number of pensioner people in the world. In our country, you don’t need to work when you are in retirement. You don’t need to have wages because your pension is too low. That’s very precious for us, and we will fight to keep it.
Now, in France, the common law is you can become a pensioner at 62. In the railway, it’s 57. For the driver, it’s 52. Of course, it’s young if you compare it to the USA, but it’s a philosophy point for us. You have to work. We work hard during our life to give, to create beautiful things, to create the welfare of the world, that after we have the right to take rest. To take rest, not just when you are too sick or too old to work, but the right to take rest and take care of you, take care of your family. That’s the purpose of the pension and of our retirement system. That’s why we fight for that. We fight to defend it.
The bill of Macron now, it’s to destroy the system, and for everybody in France to work two years more for a low pension, lower than our guarantee now. It’s totally crazy, because they say we have to save money, the pension system is too expensive, and blah, blah. When we created this system, it was just after World War II, when the country was totally destroyed, when the economy was collapsed, when you had to buy your bread with some tickets, and when there was no money. Now, we are within the six most powerful countries in the world. How can you say there is no money for that?
It’s a choice of society. You can spend billions to buy weapons, to buy canons, to buy ammunition, et cetera, et cetera. Okay? You can spend money for that, but you can’t spend money for your people, for the old people, for curing sickness, et cetera, et cetera? That’s the American way, but definitely not our way. It’s why we fight for that, for our rights, but for our way of life. It’s inheritance, it’s a legacy for our fathers and grandfathers who fought for that. It’s very important to keep it with respect to our father and grandfather, and by love to our children.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Already, just hearing from all of you, from across the Atlantic Ocean, from the UK, France, across the US, I’ll admit I really needed this conversation. I think, like I imagine all of you, I was feeling very burnt out, a bit demoralized after last year because we fought so hard to get this stuff into public consciousness, seeing all this great grassroots momentum, and then just seeing the establishment striking back, remembering what we’re really up against. The mainstream media has been absolutely dogshit in the UK, in the US, and I imagine in France. We really are up against imposing and formidable forces. But as Cat said so beautifully, there are more of us than there are of them. We do have more power than they do if we are working together. That’s not just in our respective countries. That is where our strength can come from internationally as well.
I wanted to end up there. I want us to do another turn around the table and talk about where, as of now, we’re recording this on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, where in the situation of railroad workers in the US, we’re already approaching the next contract negotiation period, and as we said, as we are recording this, there is just absolute disaster in East Palestine, Ohio that continues to unfold, the Supreme Court case hearing continues to unfold, so a lot is in motion right now. Same in the UK. A number of unions and workforces are waging many days of strike action this month. We’ll see where that is going. Emmanuel Macron does not seem to be budging yet, and so we imagine that workers in France are going to continue to ramp up the pressure there, continue to hit the streets.
I wanted to go around the table one more time and ask you guys, first, where you see all of this going in your respective countries and beyond? What groups of workers in your respective countries, like different unions or solidarity groups, what efforts are you seeing where workers are trying to support one another, and really trying to turn these different struggles into a movement? And ultimately, what can folks listening, whether they’re in the US or anywhere else in the world, what can they do to support you all and to show real robust, tangible, international solidarity?
Ross Grooters: I’m glad you brought up the word “movement”. Sometimes I think this gets a little diluted, but it’s very important that we organize movements and work outside of our respective organizations. Capital doesn’t know boundaries neither, so we as labor need to find ways to get past the respective geographies that we’re in and work together. Railroad workers in this country have been trying to do that across the boundaries of our crafts and our industry and really look at what’s outside of that. We need to do that more. We need to get union leadership on board with doing that as well. But that is critical. And union leadership internationally coming together and finding ways to support each other.
We’re all on the same supply chains. The things that we’re building and making that go through countries all over the world. When we think about that supply chain, we’re either upstream or downstream of other people that are working. I’m sure that I’ve, in the past, handled freight that has ended up in the UK, and perhaps on Clayton’s train. We can work together if we’re having conversations like this one and building relationships and finding what those critical choke points are so that we can put pressure on and put the hurt to the people that are making billions of dollars at our expense.
Also, I just want to say that I saw in France, they had a barbecue, a smoker that was being rolled down rails. I want to participate in that. I want to learn where… Somebody’s got to hook me up with this, because that looked fun. We should be having fun. We should. It is very serious and it is work, but let’s make that work fun.
Folks can go to railroadworkersunited.org and check us out. We do allow people to join as solidarity members. But more importantly, we just want to work with folks that are engaged in this struggle and are interested in seeing more control for workers in their workplaces. We want to keep that going, but certainly, we can use financial support to do that. Otherwise, just sign up for our emails and learn more about what’s happening here. We put out various news bulletins to get people in the know about what’s happening for real, not from what other corporate media is going to tell you is happening.
Cat Cray: Sorry, I was going to absolutely destroy them with a Goldman quote, but I’m sure it’s something along the lines of if there’s no dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming. Joy, art, singing, protest, poetry, all of these things we have a right to, and we must revel in. The picket lines shouldn’t just be serious. In fact, sometimes they should not be serious at all.
This week, we heard Shell and BP make disgusting amounts to profit, billions and billions of pounds. I’m sure Exxonmobil and Chevron are the same. Whilst we are being denied a cost of living pay rise, and we are being denied and having to fight for a safe workplace, for a fair workplace, for fair terms and conditions. Knowing each other’s stories and humanity, that’s the most valuable thing we can do. That’s how we can organize.
Also, there is nothing quite like shift worker burnout, especially if you are active in your union, or you’re a union rep. Talking about that matters. Before we were recording this session, we were talking about our exhaustion after night shifts, which exists in many industries, not just the railway. We have that in common. It doesn’t matter which side of the ocean we are, we can relate. As trade unionists, we can relate to the work that we do when we come home from our shift as well, emotionally and literally.
Also, the real hard work of organizing, or trying to get a balance across the line, and making sure all of your members in your area have been talked to and communicated and have had a say, it’s hard work. There should be joy. But having those things in common, regardless of where we are from, are things that bind us together.
Matthieu Bolle-Reddat: The point is now, that all over our world after this COVID situation, after this crisis from the COVID situation, because it was a healthcare crisis, but it’s become now a financial crisis, an economic crisis. That, you can mix these consequences with the economic crisis after the war in Ukraine now. It’s a choice now.
The bosses and the government, the right-wing government, want to give to the people and the workers, to give to us the bill of this two crisis, economic crisis, but it’s totally unfair. We are definitely not responsible for the crisis, and we create profits. We create the money. They have to pay for the crisis. We do not have to pay for it. It’s not just in France, of course, in the USA, but in all of our Europe we can see that. We can see that in England, we can see that in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, et cetera, et cetera.
Everywhere in Europe, there are waves of struggle, waves of strike and demonstration everywhere in Europe. For example, there is this enormous, huge movement of strike in England, in the UK. Nobody expected that, because since 10 years ago there was no general strike in the UK. But the working class, they find a way to strike, and they find a way to struggle against this terrible policy, against poverty, against inequality. Now, the UK, it’s become definitely the lighthouse of the struggle in all Europe.
But at the same time, there is struggle and strike in Greece. There is struggle and strike in Belgium. There is struggle and strike in Germany. There is struggle and strike in Italy, in Portugal, in Spain. There are waves of strike. We have to support each other in this way, because we definitely have the same problems. We have the same claims, the same demands, and we have the same enemies: the bosses and the government.
They are internationalists. They are definitely internationalists, because they support each other, the bosses. They have no border, they have no nation, they have no family. They work to make us pay for the economic crisis, and make monies, make monies, make profits and more profits, to steal the profits we create by our work. We have to fight. We have to fight in our countries against bosses, against government, but we have to support each other. We have to be shoulder to shoulder to fight at the same time for the same claims against the same enemies.
It’s why, for example, me and my comrades from my union, we were three times in Britain since last June, in London, in Manchester, in Birmingham, et cetera, et cetera, to demonstrate with them, collect money for their solidarity front of RMT and support them, because we are railway workers, they are railway workers, they are on fight. Of course, we don’t speak the same languages. We don’t have the same passport, but we are brothers and sisters. We have to support each other. It’s why we crossed the channel three times in six months to support them, to show them we are with them, we have their back, to support them. It’s very important. We are family.
It’s very important, because I know, we know what a general strike is. We know what a strike is for a long time, for months. I can confess to you, our worst enemy is the feeling of loneliness. It’s very important to show them solidarity, show solidarity by statement, and show concrete solidarity. Collect money, come in the picket lines, come demonstrate with them, and show our solidarity in action, not just in speeches, but in action.
This interview in the USA, it’s very important because it’s showing solidarity to the statement of the unions from the USA, from Venezuela, from Algeria, from Pakistan, from north of Europe, et cetera, et cetera, from South America. It’s very important because it’s brick, the loneliness of the working class. It’s very important to have the feeling that we are part of something bigger than us, because we fight for the greater good.
For example, I’m totally sure if we win in France, because we do, like I said, five days of general strike since January, but the 7th of March we started an unlimited strike in the vanguard sectors against the pension bill of Macron, of railway, underground, refinery of petroleum, chemical industry, electric power, electric and gas power companies, et cetera, et cetera. We will start this unlimited strike. It’ll be huge in France. It’ll be a big event. We hope to win by this way, because we do five days of lobbying to show we are very… There are a million people in France, they’re against the law, but they don’t want to negotiate with us.
We have to take new steps at it. It’s why we started, we will start this unlimited strike, to break the economy and force them to negotiate. It’ll be the real class war in France. But we are sure, we are confident if we win, if we win, it will be a signal, it will be a lighthouse, it’ll be the beginning of something, not just in France, but it will give confidence, trust in the power of the working class in all of our Europe. Maybe it’ll be the beginning of a European strike, a European fight to make our dreams come true.
It’s very important to support each other. We hope there will be a lot of delegation, a lot of groups of militant comrade brother and sister, from Spain, from Italy, from Britain, from Sweden, and maybe we hope from USA, to come to Paris and demonstrate with us and show to the workers, and show to the bosses, and show to the universe we are not alone, and we fight together.
Clayton Clive: I think what… I was at a meeting discussing solidarity in Manchester recently. It occurred to me that I think the vast majority of the British trade union movement has almost forgotten how to do solidarity effectively over them visiting picket lines, which is good and helpful and people like that. I’m not taking that for granted. But since strike actions died at the end of the minor strike and the strikes that followed, it’s almost like it’s been forgotten how to do it. There was massive solidarity then with food trucks being driven across the country, and women’s organizations raising money for minors, and lesbians and gays support the minors being born. Now it’s a trickle of solidarity. No one’s… People seem to have forgotten the way in how to do it other than saying it and turning up and being there. We’ve had some really good solidarity events organized by comrades in Manchester, and the money’s been split between branches of unions in dispute.
One of the things people need to do is sometimes just do it. If someone was like, oh, well we should do an event. Someone should do an event. You go and do the event. Do it. Because no one’s going to stop you. No one’s going to say no. No one’s going to be upset. Everyone’s just going to be grateful.
It’s hard, especially for reps and activists, that some of them will be burning out because they’re in this biggest dispute they’ve been in their lives in many industries in the UK. That takes its toll on you, because you are permanently answering questions from members, and trying to organize picket lines, and keep the steam. Some members will be happy with the way things are going, and other members will be very frustrated and think, why is it not going the way I want the dispute to go?
At the same time, we’ve seen lots of people with really good victories as well, like the Liverpool Dockers, and the Dockers at Felix though in Southampton, I want to say, who went on an all out strike for a few weeks. I think it was over 15% pay raise. We’re seeing victories, and I think that’s just going to snowball. I can’t… I wouldn’t want to see any of these big disputes lose because I think it would be very damaging to the morale of the movement when it’s suddenly finding morale again and it’s suddenly finding hope and organization and again, even unions that have never had large scale action are doing so as well. You hope it snowballs. And as it snowballs, the government falls apart yet again, as it does bimonthly, as for us at the moment.
In terms of solidarity and what can be done to help RNT members, I think one of the most obvious ones is financial solidarity. We’re not a big union. We’re 80,000 members. 40,000 were involved in the national rail dispute. I think 10,000 were involved in the London underground dispute.
We don’t have the financial clout to financially support members alone. We rely a lot on donations. I know there’s one on the website, the RNT website, you can donate to the national dispute from there. It gets allocated to branches to help their members. Or you could contact your local branch and give directly to your branch, which is something I’d recommend if you’ve got a good proactive local branch. But you might not know that, so I don’t know, I can’t help you.
But also, we do have a branch Twitter. It’s @rmtmansouth. Some shrewd entrepreneur would get up and go, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and set up a T-Mill Shop, which is ethical t-shirts, or so they tell me. They’ve got snappy slogans with art donated by some artists like Sam Warman from Australia, who is quite well known, and some other ones in the UK. All the money from those t-shirts, all the profit from them, goes to the branch hardship fund, and they do ship internationally.
But yeah, that’s everything I’ve got to say. Onwards to victory in the dark times. Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times.
- Railroad Workers United website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Ross’s Twitter page
- Maximillian Alvarez, Breaking Points, “Rail Worker EXPOSES Ohio Disaster COVERUP“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, ““This Was Preventable”: Railroad Workers Explain How Wall St Caused the East Palestine Derailment“
- Working People, “East Palestine, Ohio: A Hell of Wall Street’s Making (w/ Matt Weaver)“
- Mel Buer, The Nation, “The Ohio Derailment Catastrophe Is a Case Study in Disaster Capitalism“
- Kari Lydersen, In These Times, “The Case for Nationalizing the Railroads“
- RMT Union National Dispute Fund
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Corporate Billionaires Are Wrecking the Supply Chain. Just Look at the Railroads“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “The Supreme Court Is About to Drag Workers’ Rights Back by Centuries“
- RMT Union website, Facebook page, and Twitter page,
- Clayton’s Twitter page
- Manchester South RMT Twitter page
- Cat’s Twitter page
- Working People, “RMT Strike (w/ Mel Mullings, Clayton Clive, Cat Cray, & Gaz Jackson)“
- Rupert Pickering, Tribune, “Defend the RMT“
- Karl Hansen, Jacobin, “Britain’s Rail Workers Are Poised to Strike Against Austerity“
- Venda Premkumar, Maia Khan, & Rita Mahli, Tribune, “Why We’re On Strike“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “New Anti-Union Law in UK Takes Aim at Strike Wave“
- General Confederation of Labour website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Maximillian Alvarez, Breaking Points, “French Workers STRIKE Against Neoliberal Pension Reforms“
- Tomek Skomski & Marion Beauvalet, Tribune, “Workers Against Macron“
- Working People, “The French General Strike (2019−2020)“
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Post-production: Jules Taylor
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.