Where Do Railroad Workers Go from Here?
Four railroad workers discuss Congress’s handling of the rail contract dispute, and how Wall Street’s destruction of the freight rail system is only going to get worse for workers, shippers, and all of us.
After a three-year saga of stalled contract negotiations between the country’s freight rail carriers and the 12 unions representing over 100,000 railroad workers, “pro-union” President Biden and Congress “averted” a national rail shutdown by overriding the democratic will of rail workers and forcing a contract down their throats. So, what happens now?
In December, shortly after the Biden administration and Congress intervened, Working People convened a special all-railroader panel to break down the events of the last week and to discuss where railroad workers and the labor movement go from here.
Panelists include: Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23; Marilee Taylor, who worked on the railroads for over 30 years and retired earlier this year from her post as an engineer for BNSF Railway, but is still an active member of Railroad Workers United; John Tormey, a writer and BWMED-IBT member who works as a track laborer for the commuter rail in Massachusetts; and Matt Parker, a full-time locomotive engineer who’s worked on the railroads for 19 years and also serves part-time as Chairman on the Nevada State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
John Tormey: My name is John Tormey. I’ve been a member of BMW EDIBT for about 11 years, and I work on a commuter railroad in Massachusetts.
Jay: Hey everyone, my name is Jay. I started with the railroad in 2005 in Maryland and worked in the transportation side as a conductor and remote control operator until 2010. And then in May of 2010 I took promotion to train dispatcher and I’ve been doing that ever since, still currently doing that.
Marilee Taylor: My name is Marilee Taylor. I recently retired from the BNSF in Chicago after over 28 years on the BNSF. I started on the railroad in the South in 1987. All together it’s 34 years actually working on the railroad. That’s basically it, and I’m so happy to be retired.
Matthew Parker: Hi, my name is Matt Parker. I live in Northern Nevada. Went to work for the railroad in 2004 as a brakeman conductor. Took promotion to engine service about a year later, and I’ve worked for the railroad for about 19 years now. I’ve been a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen since I hired out.
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 with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
As you guys heard, we’ve got a blockbuster panel of incredible folks with us today. As you all know, if you listen to this show, I have to imagine you’ve been watching the news over the past week as closely as all of us have, but shit has continued to go down on the nation’s freight railroads. And we’ve been doing our best on this show, at The Real News, the work I’ve been doing at Breaking Points, and all that stuff, we’ve been doing our best to cover the crisis on the railroads all year.
And frankly, I think the sad fact of the matter is after watching the corporate media response this week, is that we haven’t done enough. We haven’t made as much of a dent as we should have in public consciousness, because there’s still so much about how we ended up where we are, what that crisis on the railroads actually means, where it came from, who’s responsible for it, and what it is doing to workers like Marilee, Jay, John, and Matt on the railroads. We have such a long way to go in this country. And we’re going to talk about all of that and more on this special urgent all-railroader panel that we have convened for the podcast today.
And frankly, I just want to say up top first, I want to thank all of my incredible guests for joining us today, especially with everything going on. And secondly, I just wanted to ask listeners to give us some credit, because getting this many railroaders schedules to line up is a pretty incredible feat in and of itself.
But if you guys follow me, you know that I’ve been on the PR war path all week along with other folks here. I interviewed Marilee for Breaking Points, and we talked about what was going on earlier in the week. I had Matt on The Real News back in September. We’ve had Jay on a couple times over the summer. Our boy John over in Massachusetts is a long-time friend of the show. You guys should go check out the episodes that I did with John in previous seasons.
But the point being is that if you follow me you know that I’ve been running around a chicken with my head cut off, taking as many interviews as I possibly can with as many shows and podcasts as I possibly can to try to get the word out as events have unfolded over the past week. And in all of those interviews, I’ve done my best to jam as much context as possible into people’s brains in the time allotted.
And I say all that up top because that’s not what we’re going to do here. I promise. Anyone listening who’s been listening to those other interviews, I’m not going to do another breakdown of the Railway Labor Act. I’m not going to run through how all the different stages that the 12 rail unions have gone through to get to the point that we’re at now. I’m going to link to all of the different interviews that I’ve done. I’m going to link to the stuff that Marilee and Matt have done. If you want that background context, I would highly suggest that you go listen to those or go re-listen to the episodes that Jay and I did together for the podcast where we gave y’all a really sprawling, in-depth discussion about the long-brewing crisis on the Nation’s Freight Railroad system.
But just to make sure that everyone who is listening is up to date, here’s what I’ll do to set the table, and then I’m going to unleash our incredible panel so that we can have not necessarily a, let’s educate the public about what’s going on right now sort of discussion. This is going to be a let’s talk amongst ourselves about what the fuck just happened, what it means for railroad workers and all workers, where we go from here, what lessons can we take away from this whole arduous shit show, and where can we fight back against this corporate crap and this linkage between our corporate overlords and our politicians conspiring to crush working people into subservience.
With all of that up front, I’m just going to read a little bit from a New York Times piece that was published on Dec. 2. We are recording this on Sunday, Dec. 4. Here is the latest news that we got before the weekend. The headline reads, “Biden signs legislation to avert nationwide rail strike.” And this is by Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Emily Cochrane. They write, “President Biden signed legislation on Friday to impose a labor agreement between rail companies and workers who have been locked in a bitter dispute, averting a strike that could have upended the economy just before the holiday season. ‘Without freight rail many US industries would literally shut down,’ Mr. Biden said before signing the bill, adding that many communities would not have received crucial resources during the strike. ‘Thanks to the bill Congress passed in what I’m about to sign, we spared the country that catastrophe.’”
“Mr. Biden had called on Congress earlier this week to intervene in the stalemate and avoid the work stoppage that could have cost the economy $2 billion a day. It was a significant move for Mr. Biden, a staunch ‘union backer’, who has previously argued against congressional intervention in railway labor disputes, arguing that it unfairly interferes with union bargaining efforts. But he called for an exception in this case because a rail strike could have devastated the economy, snapping supply chains for commodities like lumber, coal, and chemicals, and delaying deliveries of automobiles and other goods. ‘I know this was a tough vote for members of both parties,’ Mr. Biden said, ‘it was tough for me, but it was the right thing to do at the moment to save jobs.’”
But here’s one more quote that I wanted to read for a good laugh. “Congress acted under the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce. After signing the bill, Mr. Biden said he would work to secure paid sick leave for American workers ‘before it’s all over’. Asked when rail workers can expect medical leave provisions, Mr. Biden said, ‘As soon as I can convince our Republicans to see the light.’” So never, basically, is what I’m gathering from that. So that’s your update.
Like I said, I’m not going to go into the whole rigamarole of laying out all the news that’s unfolded over the past few months. Again, I’m sure everyone who listens to this show already knows what’s going on. But basically we were approaching another deadline after which we could have seen a rail strike as early as Dec. 9. Biden, Mr. pro-union president stepped in last week, urged Congress to override the democratic will of railroad workers, a majority of whom had voted the tentative agreement that was reached into September down and were prepared to strike. And Biden said, fuck all of you, you need to get back to work. We are forcing a contract down everyone’s throats and making it essentially illegal for anyone to strike over this. And that’s what the press is like hailing is us “averting” a strike. That’s where we are. That’s what you guys need to know up top. I’m not going to talk anymore because we’ve got an amazing panel of folks here and it’s really their impressions, their thoughts that I want to hear and I imagine the same is true for all of you.
Why don’t we start there, guys? Again, we’ve been doing a lot of coverage. All of us here have been posting about this online. We’ve been doing interviews on other shows. But as far as this podcast itself goes, I think the last thing that we published on the railroad specifically was back in September when we were approaching the deadline after which strikes or lockouts could begin. That was the deadline after the 30 day cooling off period that began when the Presidential Emergency Board released its official recommendations for a brokered agreement in late August.
Why don’t we start there, from September to today, Dec. 4, 2022? Could you talk a bit about what it’s been like for you over these past few months? What’s been going on on your side of things? What have your thoughts and impressions and experiences been as this shit has all unfolded? And then what do you want listeners to know about what you and your fellow workers are going through right now? Why don’t we start again with John and we’ll go back around the table.
John Tormey: My first impression is just you could not convince me that the guy who controls a nuclear arsenal couldn’t bully a couple CEOs into giving freight railroad workers seven days off paid. He did what he wanted to do as far as I saw. I don’t know what you guys think.
Jay: I mean, I can tell you one thing for sure. I mean, even in the office, we don’t get outside at all anymore. We don’t get to see the railroad that we dispatch. We don’t get to take road days. We don’t get to do anything anymore. I would say in my career, in the time that I’ve been on the railroad, the level of skill that I’ve seen go out the door in favor of the worst training that I’ve ever seen, the absolute worst work ethic that I’ve ever seen, management incompetence that boggles the same mind, promotions of people that… I mean, I don’t even know how to describe them. I’m running out of words to describe these people because if you work in any other industry, you can’t understand the railroad. It’s so different. It’s so completely out of the ordinary. If you know anybody that’s a total screw up that needs a job, the railroad’s hiring a manager somewhere [Jay and Max laugh].
But in the office we’ve seen an incredible amount of dissentience. People, they’re angry. They’re tired of being abused. We’re sick and tired of being made fun of. We’re tired of having managers say to us, “Your mother should have swallowed you,” because you didn’t do something the manager liked and then that person gets promoted.
We’re tired of having our general manager say… We had an employee commit suicide in the office a few weeks ago, 21 years old. And the union went to the general manager and said, hey, we would like to work with the carrier to arrange for some people to be able to attend the funeral, which happened to be back in Michigan. And he said, you can attend your funeral services electronically, and walked away.
And when you think about things like that, and then you think about where the railroad industry is and you think about… It doesn’t matter whether you stand on the right or the left of the aisle in the halls of Congress, nobody has your back anymore. In some respects, you can’t even trust your own union leadership to have your back. And it’s really, really, really disheartening. It’s really weighing heavily on people and we’re seeing people walk out the door in droves. Biden’s attempt to save the ship may have been like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, frankly.
Marilee Taylor: I think you’re right. Absolutely. I think there is just such deep, deep anger that remains in response to these attacks and what the scab Joe did in leading this attack on us. There’s that.
And I think people, we’ve all had a deep learning curve in the last weeks, haven’t we? I mean, I’ve never done a Zoom before this, or not this particular one. But we’ve learned a lot of all kinds of different things and I think that we have to assume, based on what we’ve seen, that the vast majority of working people on the railroads, those of us working on the railroads and whatever craft unions are coming to grips with something that they may not have seen in their life. What does it mean? We have been told since we were born in the labor movement to support the Democratic Party because they’re our friends. And now the cloak or the veil slipped and we see who these people are. That’s big news for a whole layer of our coworkers that hadn’t anticipated that they could be so brutally betrayed by someone. In many cases they had campaigned for it.
We’re just going through it right now I think, and we’re learning as we go and we can only… Well, we could go one of two ways. We can get stronger or we could just allow all the people that Jay just spoke of to intervene in our struggle. And not just politicians, but others who have a different agenda. I think we need to talk about what our agenda should be as workers and as leaders of this fight within all these unions that we’re in. What does it mean for us?
I think, clearly, it means that we need to propagandize against only having the two parties that have represented concretely throughout the last few months in an in your face way that they cannot and will not represent the interests of workers. I think we got a lot of ideas on the plate that we got to begin to work through and come to terms with. And this is actually fascinating.
I love your accent. I keep wanting to say Sarah. I wish you would change that little name there, John. I mean this is a wonderful place and I thank you, Max. This is just a wonderful warm hug in a certain sense.
Matthew Parker: Jay really hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the word incompetence. We’re dealing with leadership in the class one railroads in this country right now that is the most incompetent, perhaps, in the entire history of the industry. And that’s what’s led to situations that we’re in right now with the service crisis on the railroads and with the horrible relationship between labor and management. The relationship between labor and management has been toxic ever since the industry started in the mid 19th century and it’s never gotten any better.
And I had a manager in a training session here a couple months ago drop this line on me about how the railroads have been doing things wrong for 155 years, and then Hunter Harrison wrote a book and now we’re doing everything right. That’s laughable right there. But of all the things that the railroad has been doing wrong for 155 years, it’s the relationship between labor and management. And they just want to continue down that road. They don’t want to make it any better.
Then we have Congress and the administration stepping in and demonstrating their incompetence when it comes to dealing with understanding and dealing with the issues in the railroad industry. The labor dispute that’s going on here is just one symptom of a systematic destruction of the railroad industry over the last several years by CEOs kowtowing to Wall Street demands. And by Congress and the administration’s stepping into this dispute, they had an opportunity after three years now that the Congress and the regulatory agencies have held hearing after hearing after hearing about the problems in the rail industry, there’s been no action. They had the opportunity here, a golden opportunity to take some action to start to correct the problem, and instead what they did is they took an action that’s likely to make it worse.
There was an article that came out the summer after the annual meeting of the National Grain Park Council in which both the members of that council and members of the Surface Transportation Board in attendance expressed their concern that if the labor dispute on the railroads was not solved in a manner that was acceptable to labor, that it could accelerate what we’ve already seen in terms of employee attrition, which is already at record levels, people walking away from these jobs like we’ve never seen before.
And in the long term, if that is what happens – And I will tell you there’s a lot of discontent amongst the railroad workforce. There’s a lot of people talking about walking. And somewhere, I remember seeing a number of fearing attrition as high as 30%. That would be disastrous to an industry that is already chronically understaffed. And everybody saying, yay, we averted a rail strike, the problem looming out there on the horizon we could still be facing may not be as bad as a strike, but it’s going to go on a lot longer and take a lot longer to fix than the strike would have. And if that’s what happens, then I would say that this action that Congress and the administration have taken, that every bad thing that comes along in the railroad industry from here on out, they now own. They stepped in, they took ownership of it, and instead of fixing the problem they have potentially made it worse now.
Anything that goes on, don’t point your fingers at the carriers, don’t point your fingers at the unions. You own this. And that’s what we need to stand up and remind them of if this is what happens in the future.
- Railroad Workers United website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- John’s Twitter page
- Matt’s Twitter page
- Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Emily Cochrane, The New York Times, “Biden Signs Legislation to Avert Nationwide Rail Strike“
- Maximillian Alvarez, Breaking Points, “EXCLUSIVE: Rail Worker SLAMS Biden’s “Tyrannical” Move Blocking Strike“
- Citations Needed, “News Brief: Biden, Congressional Dems Partner with GOP, Media to Discipline Rail Labor“
- Bad Faith, “Joe Biden ABANDONS Rail Workers“
- Useful Idiots, “‘Union Joe’ Biden Sells Out Rail Workers“
- John Tormey, The Baffler, “Known Assailants“
- Working People, “Jay“
- Working People, “Countdown to Midnight (w/ Jay & Joe)“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Wall Street is Holding the Supply Chain Hostage to Stop a Railroad Workers’ Strike“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Solidarity with Railroad Workers“
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Corporate Billionaires Are Wrecking the Supply Chain. Just Look at the Railroads“
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to pick up on that real quick, because I want to talk about what this is going to mean for the industry, what this is going to mean for the things that we all have been talking about with you guys over the past year. Because this came up. I think it came up, Matt, in our interview back in September. Jay, it came up in both of our interviews, I think, that things have been getting so bad for so long that you have already been seeing the workers quit in record numbers, more trains lying idle. And what was nuts was it’s not just people who just hired on who said, actually I made a mistake. I’m out. These are people with 5, 10, 15 or more years of experience, accrued seniority and knowledge, all of that is just leaving.
And how can you recover in an industry where everyone working there has to commit to memory an Encyclopedia Brittanica of different types of regulations, and you have to know every inch of the track of the run that you are on. There is just so much specific knowledge that you all have, to think of what the effect of that brain drain is going to be, that’s what I want us to talk about in a second and what it’s going to mean for the relationship between labor and management, which, as Jay already acknowledged, is really fucking bad already.
But I wanted to pause real quick on that point because this is a question that has come up, people have asked me about it. Basically what people say is that it seemed like rail workers were genuinely convinced that a strike would happen in September, and they were ready for it. Or that most people were ready for it. But this Dec. 9 deadline, it felt like more people were resigned to what happened this past week happening. It felt like everyone knew they’re never going to “let us strike”. Biden’s going to side with the carriers and force a deal down our throats, that kind of thing.
I wanted to get a temperature check with you guys. Is that accurate? Do you feel like that shift noticeably happened in you and among your fellow workers over these past couple months?
Marilee Taylor: Well, I’d like to start off with just saying that, for context, BNSF voted in January of this year to strike. We forced a vote within our unions to strike over their attendance policy, the most draconian one that we’ve seen yet, and which all the other carriers are going to follow depending on how big and strong our fight back is over the issues of the contract and so on and so forth. I think we’ve been ready for quite a while, a long time, ready to walk. And I think what others have said, what Matt said about the attrition. Railroad workers are going to vote with their feet. It’s an untenable situation. We cannot continue to be run into the ground where we don’t even feel like we can live.
Increases in suicides. We all know someone now, I think, who’s committed suicide. And they were driven to that by the carriers. And in my opinion, both of the parties represent the carriers, in fact, in day to day working in the government itself. They do hold what Matt says exactly right.
Joe Biden should have it tattooed on him, how many deaths he’s caused, how much social carnage that he’s caused. And I agree without hanging it on him. He should not be allowed to go anywhere in this country and not meet a picket line, a protest line, a protest of some kind of way. And I was wondering if, John, were you involved at all in that, there was apparently a 200-person picket line in Boston?
John Tormey: Yeah, we went to JFK Library. I couldn’t make it up that time.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and John, just a question about this, because our boy Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United, we’ve talked to him many times over the past year. He himself is a self-described refugee from the freight service to passenger service. I was wondering if you could say a little more about the chatter that you’ve been hearing on the track workers’ side in the commuter rail. What has the conversation been while all of this shit has been unfolding over the past year?
John Tormey: The older guys that… I mean, there aren’t many of them left, I only started 11, 12 years ago and a lot of them are retired now. But the ones who are still around, they never thought it was going to happen. They said it was going to happen like it did in ’92, they said everybody will walk for two days. The mood is, like Matt was talking about incompetence and everything like that. And it’s creepy hearing you guys describe… Jay described the attitude of management’s almost exactly word for word what happens to us too. And at that point I don’t think it’s incompetence, I think it’s on purpose. I think they know. There’s something that they’re doing. They know what it is. People are fleeing that fast from a guaranteed pension and union protections and everything like that. They know it. They know what they’re doing. Incompetence is just being an idiot. And this, I think, shades more towards evil than idiot.
Jay: Yeah, that actually brings up a really good point, and I’m glad you said that because we were just having a conversation in the office the other day, myself and a couple of my coworkers. And we were trying to determine, as you just mentioned, whether this was incompetence or whether this was purposeful by design. And Matt, you could probably attest to this too. The railroads, like most major corporations in America, are pushing for technology. Technology, technology, technology, trip optimizer, movement planner, autopilot in the airline industry, self-driving cars, what have you. There’s almost like this Jetsons-like life where you talk to Rosie and Rosie comes over and folds the laundry for you and loads the dishwasher. I mean, is that ever going to happen? Maybe. Maybe, but it sure as hell won’t be in my lifetime. And I would be almost terrified if it did because at that point Terminator could become a reality.
But we have to think about this a little bit more in depth. So if the railroads wish to get rid of the conductor, which we know they do, their goal is to get rid of the conductor, we know that. They’re actively working on that. That’s the purpose of Trip Optimizer, and the New York Air Brake Company’s leader that they use to basically run the train. And what they do to the engineers is they say, okay, you’re going to run this stupid program, which, Trip Optimizer, I’ll tell you what, if they do it correctly, it actually runs a fairly decent train if it’s not excessively heavy or the grades aren’t excessively bad. And that’s the scary part, because what happens when you disengage the human being from the situation? Situational awareness declines drastically very quickly. And I can tell you from my perspective, when they brought Movement Planner in, it made me a worse dispatcher.
I mean I used to make decisions at the last second. I would sit there and listen to the radio and I would hear the trains calling the signals out there, clear, 27, clear, 24, clear, here. And right before they would get to the one that was going to be an approach, I’d line the next signal up and I’d hear them out there, approach meeting. And this is how I made my meets. I’d plan, okay, this guy’s taking this side, and all this.
And now what this computer has done is, in an effort to prevent it from doing something stupid, I make a premature decision to route something that could have been done better if I had waited. And what you run into is they say, okay, we’ll run all these people off. And then the narrative is going to be, oh my God, our workforce is gone. We can’t hire anybody. Oh, it’s so bad. Oh, we need single-man crews. And the government’s just proven they’re going to side with it. This is absolute lunacy what we’re dealing with here.
And I talked about the hazmat spills and things like that. We saw the two derailments earlier this week. One was coal. That’s not going to hurt anything. One was empty cars, the car right in front of it was a hazardous tank car, dodged a bullet there. But think about this. So you go after your working class, what happens when there’s no more jobs? When nobody can find gainful employment anymore? Who’s going to drive the economy? Cause it’s certainly not the rich people, it’s the middle class. It’s the people that pay a mortgage every month, that go to the grocery store, that buy cars, clothes, all of that stuff. And what need will there be for a railroad when nobody’s building homes? There won’t be a need for a railroad.
And we saw what happened to pilots when COVID hit. Well, if I’m not getting paid because I can’t afford to live, you think I’m going to be buying an airline ticket? No. So there goes those jobs. This is madness. What are we going to do, sit on our haunches and wait until our economy and our country is totally destroyed and been pillaged by these lunatics before we do something? I mean, come on.
Maximillian Alvarez: Let me pick up on that because like I said, we’re not going to go over something that took us hours upon hours to go over in past episodes, which was like, how did things get this bad, and how long has it been happening? But maybe, picking up on what you were just saying, Jay, I was wondering if we could go around the table and refresh people’s memories in your different corners. Because I think we’ve got a really special panel here of folks from different parts of the country working different lines, working different sides of the railroads. I wanted to ask if you guys could talk a little bit for listeners who still don’t know what it’s like to do the kind of work that you do, if you could talk a bit more about what those changes have meant?
Because we’ve already had a couple of them mentioned here, that those trains used to have five people on them, now they’ve got two. The rail carriers wanted to get it down to one, and the trains are like three miles fucking long. Jay and dispatchers are increasingly separated from the people whose lives are in their hands as they’re communicating with them. John and the maintenance away folks. I’ve heard these horror stories of maintenance away guys basically sleeping in box cars and going around the country to fix different parts of rail infrastructure that are going to shit because the carriers keep investing in stock buybacks and dividends instead of rail maintenance and improvements and infrastructure, yada yada yada.
So could we refresh listeners’ memories from your different corners of the industry, what these changes have actually meant in your time working at the railroads, and what the events of this past year are going to mean for those trends? Because it sounds like we’re all in agreement that they’re not going to get any better. But what should people be prepared for?
Matthew Parker: So if I could start this off. First off, I’d like to step back for a minute and talk about something that Marilee said about brain drain and the attrition of railroad workers. And again, as I said before, doing things wrong for 155 years. The railroads have this idea, when we talk about changing our work/rest schedules and having a better quality of life and everything, the railroad’s attitude is, well, why should we do that? We’ve been doing things this way for 155 years. Well, just because you’ve been doing things for 155 years the wrong way doesn’t make it any more right.
And you could look since about 2018, and see in this country that there’s been a major shift of societal attitudes, and railroad wages really aren’t that competitive. The base rate of pay right now for the job that I’m on is $35.25 an hour. Talking with a leader from the IBEW here in Nevada recently told me that journeyman lineman working for the power company here in the state are making $53 an hour. And they generally work daylights with weekends off. We don’t have that. 70% of our membership works on call 24/7 365, and really doesn’t know for sure when the phone’s going to ring and they’re going to go to work.
The railroads think that they’ve been doing this this way for this long, they can keep doing this. People aren’t going to work that way anymore. And if you as a CEO can’t take a look and see those societal changes that have happened in the last four years, you suck at your job. And that’s really where we’re at right now.
But let’s talk about the technology too. This idea that they’re going to automate the railroads and everything. We’re not even close to that. The railroad leadership thinks we are and they like to put that narrative forward.
But let me tell you about the technology that we’re dealing with right here. A couple nights ago I hopped on a two unit set of locomotives that were all set up as far as I knew, ready to go. So I didn’t check them out, I just hopped on them and went. And the first time I had to make a stop, I’m like, man, I’m having to use a lot of brake to slow this thing down and stop it. And as the trainmen were preparing the cars to pull that we were going to pull, I looked and my brake cylinder pressure was low on my controlling unit, and I thought to myself, I got a pretty good idea, I know what’s going on here. I walked up to the other engine and the brakes on it were still cut in. In order for them to work properly, they have to be cut out. So I cut them back out. We started to make the first move. And again, when we came to a stop, my brake cylinder pressure was low. I walked back up there, and the computer on that engine had cut itself back in after I cut it out.
This is the technology that we’re working with right now. It is not perfect, it has flaws, and it screws up. I’ll give you another example. The Trip Optimizer. Coming on a westbound run one night, we were coming into the first speed restriction out of the terminal, and it blew it in terms of slowing down. It finally got the train slowed down, but it got the train slowed way down because it didn’t slow the train down the way it should have.
Later down the run, I realized that one of the engines on the train that was supposed to be working that I had entered into the system was working, was actually not working. And that is why the system failed to properly slow down. It was expecting a certain amount of breaking, a big breaking effort, which it did not have because the information entered into it was wrong.
Oftentimes, we can’t get accurate train concepts from the railroad on what’s on our train. We get errors all the time. And this system relies on accurate information to work properly. When you’re dealing with a railroad that after years and years and years of implementing the technology still can’t get the information right, how in the world is the technology that relies on that information going to work properly? It’s not.
So this whole idea, they’re trying to push it, and these stupid CEOs who are totally detached from the reality of the railroads they’re running, given the opportunity, they will try to push it through. But the reality is we’re not even close to being ready for this.
Marilee Taylor: I just wanted to look at two particular things that have changed in my lifetime on the rail. In 1987 when I started, if you discussed with someone the idea of an attendance policy, they would laugh you off the railroad. There was no attendance policy. Those of us who wanted to work worked all the time, and those of us that needed time off took time off. The only thing that hurt us was you had to have a doctor’s note after six days of being off if they demanded it, which frankly we all know that ain’t nothing. So we went from that to not being able to breathe. I mean, to being so pushed into work that it’s killing us, and that it becomes an issue, of course, that we’re willing to strike on.
So those are radical changes right there on its own. The railroad makes money. They’re making more money today hauling less freight. By the billions. I’m talking billions. And the reason they can do that is because they take it away from us as a whole. All of us who work and move the freight, whether it’s the car-men fixing the cars, maintenance away take care of it, all that. It’s theft. It’s just theft. Can you imagine, we never paid insurance. We didn’t pay a co part of the policy. We didn’t have any of that. The railroads were self-insured, at that time they were self-insured through Travelers. We showed up at a doctor and that was it. We didn’t pay anything for medical care.
And we had crews. When I started, we still had seven firemen who actually didn’t shovel any coal, because I haven’t been out there that long. But they spelled the engineer, gave them a break for a minute, let them eat their lunch, let them walk around. They’d been sitting already for eight hours, stuff like that. Part of the crew called signals, brought attention to slow track, whatever. So we were an engineer, a fireman, a head brakeman, a rear brakeman, and a conductor.
And now they’re talking, of course they’re trying to push for… Actually, I wouldn’t agree that they want a one-person crew. I think they want a no-person crew. Their idea is to be Elon Musk on steroids with this self-running stuff. So I think everything that we can to explain why that is just ignorant. Among other things, I forget who raised, we’re not like the Northeast corridor of Amtrak where there are no crossings. There are no crossings through there. Am I right there, John? I mean, no crossings. I got to ride in the cab of the newest Zealot when it first started out. Long story.
But they don’t have crossings. Here, and especially as they make these trains longer and longer, we’re killing people. Not you and me, but the railroad bosses are killing our communities, our people in our communities, because they can’t get across, they can’t get to the hospital, they can’t bring the fire trucks in. And the railroads, because in state after state, the state Supreme Courts, like in Illinois, there was a law that said you can’t block crossings for more than 10 minutes. You can’t be at a stop for more than 10 minutes. The Illinois Supreme Court, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, said, oh no. Oh no, that’s unconstitutional. So they overruled the laws that had been passed and that our communities relied on, that we as crews could do the work to open up the crossings without being harassed by management for doing that, or management was forced by the police. I can’t tell you the amount of time the police have rolled up and thought they were going to give us a ticket or take us to jail. That would’ve been fun.
So I’m just saying that all of these things come together to create misery, not just for us as rail workers, but misery for our communities. It breaks my heart when I go by… We have a state route here, it’s called Harlem Avenue. It’s about half a mile or most of a mile to get into the yard. Everybody starts slowing down. If it’s blocked for 40 minutes, traffic is literally 10 miles of log jam. It breaks my heart because once you’re stuck in it, where are you going to go? How are you going to do it? And who knows who’s going to the hospital, who knows who’s going to be there for the final moments of their loved one’s life? Or what, maybe you just have to take a leak.
I mean all of this, the railroads to just have no effort at humanity or view anybody as anything more than commodities to make them money and screw the ones that ain’t working, because fuck you. So what you think you need to go to the hospital? Or so what your child’s on the other side and you’re freaked, on the other side of the block stop. So it’s just a whole… I think, I don’t know. To me it’s broiled up the waters even more, because they have as little regard for our neighbors as they do for us.
John Tormey: Well because why wouldn’t they? Look what just happened. There’s no check. There’s no consequence. Jay was talking about that manager saying something to him that if somebody said it to you outside of a bar, you’d clock them and throw a punch. And the metaphorical punch of a strike, they don’t give a shit because it’s not going to happen. Because both parties will act faster than anything on earth to stop it. So there’s no consequence, there’s no check. They can just get away with it. When you try to explain, like yeah, I get it, Christmas is soon. The shit’s not going to get where it’s supposed to go. I understand why people are freaked out about it. But at the same time, you have to do this sometimes. There’s no back and forth. They’re not scared. They don’t give a shit if they leave you stranded for 40 minutes while there’s a mile-long train in the middle of a crossing. They don’t give a shit because they don’t have to.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s one of the things that I hope is really sinking in for people around the country now. Maybe now they’re starting to see what workers like yourselves have been saying all goddamn year, which is like, it is because they always expected this result that the carriers never felt like they had to bargain in good faith for the past three goddamn years. Let’s not forget, this is a three-year-long contract fight. We’re closer to the next contract bargaining session than we are the beginning of this one.
And it’s because the carriers have been stonewalling and sitting there holding their dicks for three years and not listening to all the concerns about quality of life issues, safety issues, yada, yada, yada. Because in their back pocket, they always had this card, which was like, if it comes down to it, if we make it through all the different provisions of the Railway Labor Act, if we can’t come to a contract, our ace in the hole is whoever’s president and whoever’s in Congress, it was a Republican in ’92, it was a Democrat now, they’re going to do the same thing. They’re going to side with the bosses, they’re going to force workers back to work, and they’re going to force a deal down their throat. And so the carriers, as we’re all saying, have literally no incentive to change their ways, even if, as Marilee put it so pointedly, those destructive business practices aren’t just driving workers on the railroads into the ground. They’re putting all of us at hazard.
And this is one of the things that has been really weighing on me, because when Jay and I first spoke on the podcast, I think we recorded that back, what was that, in July, Jay, or early August? He almost predicted with horrifying accuracy a scenario of a train derailment where a train is carrying toxic materials, and what could happen if you have a one-person crew on a three-mile-long train on track that hasn’t been updated in years or decades, and you have a derailment and say chlorine starts leaking out. You could wipe out a whole town. And this shit is happening all the time.
I posted from The Real News Network Twitter account, the day after Congress forced this bullshit through, that was what, Thursday, or Wednesday? So the House voted Wednesday, Senate Thursday, Biden signed it on Friday. So amidst all of that, after the House voted, Norfolk Southern had two derailments in the same day. One on the famous Rockville Bridge in Pennsylvania, I think it’s the longest stone arch bridge in the world. And here’s a train just dangling off the side of it the day after Congress says, you know what? Rail carriers, keep doing what you’re doing. And then on the same day, Norfolk Southern had another derailment in Hanover, West Virginia.
And I think it was even a month or two ago, there was a… Luckily the derailments from this week, no one was hurt, but someone could have been. But I think it was a month ago, I saw another derailment story where there were toxic chemicals leaked. And it was like I was watching what Jay described to me played out in real time. They were like, oh, the town had to get evacuated. It’s just a nightmare. That shit is happening all over the place. And again, what incentive do the carriers have to change their ways after all of this? None. And Matt, you wanted to jump in?
Matthew Parker: Yeah, I’d like to say something about the attendance policy here and continue on with what Marilee said about that. The attendance policy is the result of the staffing cuts that we’ve seen over the last several years. The railroads have no other way to keep operating now than to make it almost impossible for us to take any time off. And that’s why they fought this so hard, the idea of paid sick leave, because they know they’re not doing enough to improve rail service as it is, but they can’t improve the rail services they’re being told to do now with the number of employees they have unless they have us working all the time. That’s why they’re fighting this.
And this goes back many, many years now as they’ve cut, cut, cut and tried to get more productivity out of the workers. There was a time, Marilee pointed out, and unless it was really excessive, the railroads didn’t care if you took time off. They had extra boards for that. But those extra boards cost money, and as part of their cost cutting, they’re trying to cut those down, and actually they’d like to eliminate them totally. And in order to do that, we have to keep the railroad workers working. And that’s why they’re doing this. It’s all about them cutting costs, them making more money, them returning more to the shareholders. And as a result now, we’re expected to work all the time and not have any family time off or anything. And as I said before, they’re going to find a problem with this as they try to go forward with this. They’re not going to be able to hire and retain workers this way.
And this tentative agreement that Congress and the administration just forced on us actually feeds into that for the carriers. With what we are required now, because aside from the wage issues, the healthcare issues, and the sick time, and the quality of life issues now, we are going to now be mandated to negotiate changes in our work rules. And we have discussed this in my union local where I’m at. To make the changes that we are now required to negotiate, we are going to lose jobs here. It’s going to cut more jobs. So the administration and Congress just handed the carriers the ability to match their workforce to their demand now. Instead of hiring more workers, let’s cut more jobs. They just handed it to them.
Jay: Yeah. You make a great point on that, Matt. I can tell you right now in the office where we’re at, I sat and looked at our schedule the other week for Thanksgiving, all the vacations that were coming up, and I can’t tell you how many vacancies I counted, just an unfathomable number of vacancies. Like you said, like Marilee said, this would’ve never happened before, and in the early years of my career it didn’t. We didn’t have a staffing problem. Well, okay, let me just elaborate a little bit. So we did in the sense that we didn’t have enough people on the route, but they hired and they filled those vacancies, and then when people took off it didn’t matter. The extra board had 30 or 40 people on it, and it would turn, and people would work sometimes every day of the week. Other times, they would have two or three days a week off, and if the extra board got loaded too heavily, then they’d cut it, and that would reset everything, and then you’d have your rotation going again. As long as people were working, you kept people.
Then, in 2008, we had the economic collapse, and, of course, there were massive layoffs and all of that. You probably remember that yourself, being on the railroad in ’04. I came in in ’05, so I lived through it. Of course, neither of us would’ve endured the layoffs of the ’70s or ’80s, thank God. Even then, we still had managers then that were of a different breed. Now, they may have still had some of the underlying… They had the bullshit coming from up top, but at least most of the guys that I worked with were good at filtering that. They took the heat, and then it stopped with them. When they wanted you to do something, they’d come out, and most of them treated you pretty well. They weren’t afraid to throw the gloves on and come out and say, hey, let me help you with this, whatever the case may be. All the engines screwed up? Okay, no problem. I’ll go back here, look at this while you do that, we’ll talk to each other, whatever. We’d get the work done.
If I needed to take a day off or two days off or three days off, they didn’t care. They did not give a damn because they knew when I was at work, I wasn’t going to wreck anything. I wasn’t going to fuck anything up. I was going to follow the rules. The ones that I could bend, I could bend safely. There weren’t going to be injuries, none of that, and your managers respected you. Now… And I talked about this, which I’m actually writing a book, hasn’t been released yet. But in my book I talk about this, where you have this paradigm shift in the way things have been done. We had fixed pulls back in the day where one end of the terminal, they were preferred from going east and then back west and the other end of the terminal, they were west and then back east. You had assigned trains. You would go out on Monday, come back on Tuesday, out on Wednesday, back on Thursday, and be off Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
These jobs paid really, really well at the time. I mean, they paid really well. The guys never took off. Why would you take off when you know when you’re going to work, you know when you’re going to be home? You literally had a 12-hour call window, and if you didn’t get called, the railroad either had to deadhead you to the other end in a taxi to put you in the hotel for your assigned service home or they had to fill it with an extra board employee and pay you for their screw-up, and it worked beautifully.
Then 2018 comes around and that asshole Hunter Harrison, who… I mean, he hit the CSX lottery for his estate. I mean, how bullish was the board of director [inaudible]. Buffoons is what they are. $384 million he got out of them, but don’t tell me he didn’t know he was going to fucking die, because he did. I’m sure of it. That’s why he wouldn’t sign anything about a physical. We’ve seen his true colors and the damage he’s wreaked on the industry.
Look what’s going on now. Your vacancies are in the office. We’ve got unqualified train dispatchers being sat in seats to fill the desk with a manager who knows nothing about a railroad who comes to me… I had a train had a brake pipe break a few weeks ago. So when the brake pipe breaks, you can’t get air through the train. That’s it. You’ll blow as far as that hole, and then it just keeps blowing out of there until you seal it. You know what I’m saying, Matt. The manager [inaudible], is the air restoring? Well, how about you punch a hole in the tire of your car and then try to put air in it and tell me how the hell it goes for you? But these are the kind of managers we have. You’re going to question me about what I know about my job and you can’t figure… Give me a freaking break. My God.
John Tormey: I just want to say, for anybody who doesn’t understand what Jay’s saying, the scariest thing on a track with high rail and everything, the dispatcher is your connection to make sure you don’t die, basically. Those are the guys that you’re like, hey, I’m okay, right? Like, yep, you’re okay. They’re the ones watching out for you, and every time there’s a new person, the veteran dispatcher usually comes on and tells you, hey, I’m training this person. It’s going to be a little slow. You’re like, oh, all right. But if there’s a manager there with no… That’s terrifying, terrifying, terrifying.
Jay: That’s actually a good… I really want to make another point about that quick, since you just mentioned that. My guys that I work with, all of my engineers, all of my conductors, all of my M&W guys, my C&S guys, B&B, all of them, they talk to me on a first name basis, on the radio most of the time. Hey, whoever, and I’m not going to say my name. Anybody who can see me will know who I am, but you know how that goes. Anyhow, they’ll introduce it that way, and they say, can we do this, that, or the other thing? I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from guys saying, thank you so much for letting us have some time so we could get our job done. We just needed to get a thermite weld done or we needed to surface some track or whatever.
In my position, it’s my job to juggle you guys and the trains. I need the track to run the trains on, so if y’all don’t fix the track, I’m screwed. But I still need the train to run to make the company money. So it’s like playing a game of chess. The grand master of the chess game is the guy that does the best, and these people that I have in the office sitting next to me now, I listen to some of this stuff and I hear some of the things that are said on YouTube and I’m just… I sit there and I shake my head and I’m like, what in the hell is this industry coming to? The new standard is incompetence.
Matthew Parker: What Jay’s saying there, years ago, I came in from a run, 626-mile run, 313 miles over, 313 miles back. We’re coming up to a crossing. There’s a certain sequence that you have to blow on the horn when you’re approaching a crossing. This is federal regulation. The engineer’s blowing this sequence, only he’s slowing down because we’re going into the siding. We’re still a ways out from the crossing. So he blew a slightly different sequence than what was required, and management just happened to be out there watching. So we get in, I tie up, and my engineer’s over in the office talking to these two managers, and I walked over to see what was going on and they informed me that they’re writing the engineer up for not blowing the proper sequence at this crossing and they’re going to write me up, too, because I have a button on my side and I’m responsible for it as well.
626 miles, and out of all the crossings we went over, maybe this engineer didn’t blow twice the right way out of the whole time. They just happened to be there, so now they’re going to write us up for that. I’m looking at these two managers, and I’m looking at one and I’m going, okay, you’re the idiot that tried to fire a crew with a stop test that didn’t meet federal regulations that it got thrown out, and looking at the other manager and thinking, and you’re the idiot that derailed 16 cars telling a crew to do something that you told me to do two nights earlier and I said no because of the risk that was involved. Give me that and let me sign it before I say something that’s going to seem extremely funny right now but I will no doubt deeply regret later.
Maximillian Alvarez: Again, what is striking to me, and I wanted to bring this into the conversation because with the time remaining, I think it’s something that we all agree we wanted to talk about: Where do we go from here? What have we learned from this process about who our friends are, who our enemies are, how to fight this full court press of ruling class bullshit that will always take the side of business and capital over workers, yada, yada, yada? That includes the media that was holding up a baby and saying, why do you want to take Christmas away from this baby, railroad workers? All fucking month, it was driving me insane to watch the corporate media coverage, but also, yeah, of course, politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Let’s not forget it was Republican senators who wanted to ram the PEB down workers’ throats back in September. Let’s not forget that Democrats were all too happy to split this fucking bill into two knowing that the provisions for sick days, seven sick days when workers right now currently have none paid sick days, they all knew that was dead on arrival. They all knew that it was going to die in the Senate. They just wanted to make a symbolic show of how much their hearts bleed for the railroad workers, even though all of them knew that they were getting ready to fuck all of you over. Our expectations are already incredibly low for the likes of Warren Buffet, Katie Farmer, and all the executives on the rail carrier side, so on and so forth.
So I want us to talk about what we’ve learned from this within the rail workforce, but also the working class in general moving forward. but also the ways that I think people are experiencing this kind of crap in so many other different industries. I think this is something that I really wanted to bring up because, to prepare for this, I went back, I listened to the interview I did with Matt, I watched the interview that Marilee and I did, I re-listened to the ones that Jay and I did, and I noticed some similar points that you guys were making about how, as depressing and demoralizing and infuriating as this whole process has been, one thing you guys have pointed out is that it feels like there’s a groundswell. It feels like there is a rage that cannot be contained.
If there’s a silver lining of this whole miserable process, one of them is that across the 12 different rail unions you have more rank and file solidarity. You’ve had folks really reaching out and trying to talk through cross-craft organizations like Railroad Workers United about what we can do as a group, what we can do to build support amongst the ranks of workers in other industries. But, again, on this side, for me, interviewing so many different workers from different industries for The Real News and for this podcast, I can tell you what you guys are describing about management is something I’m hearing in the mining industry. I remember for my book, The Work of Living, I interviewed this great guy who you all would love named Rick Norman who is a retired silver miner, and he remembers when his managers actually had worked in the mines, and now they all have MBAs and they’ve never worked in a mine. Their only mentality is, how can we make more money out of this stuff? The workers don’t respect them because they don’t know what the fuck the work that they do actually looks like, and management doesn’t respect the workers because they only see them as faceless meat bags who perform a certain task every day.
But, also, healthcare. I think at the beginning of last season of this show, the first episode was an interview that I did with a doctor, a physician in the Pacific Northwest who was on strike, one of the few unionized physicians in the country. But he was saying the same thing. He’s like, we have managers or the administrators who have never been in an operating room and who are telling me how long a heart transplant should take. He’s like, I know how long it takes. I’ve done a million of them. You haven’t done any of them. But, again, from the administration side, it’s like, how do we optimize? How do we make this more efficient? How do we get as many patients through this as quickly as possible and extract as much value as possible through this whole process?
I’m seeing this shit crop up in so many industries that seem wildly different, and it does feel like this corporate takeover, this managerial style that sees labor as just, like I said, faceless, inhuman widgets to be exploited to the maximum amount. I wanted to talk about what this all means and what you all meant when you talked about that you yourselves are feeling and sensing that working people, not just on the railroads, are beginning to wake up and say, we’re going to do something about this. Can you guys elaborate a bit more on that groundswell that you all mentioned to me in different contexts? And John, you, too, because you and I are texting about this all the time, so –
John Tormey: I was going to say I’ll go first so everybody else sounds way more reasonable and doesn’t have the feds showing up at their door the next day. People have texted me, like my buddies and stuff like that that don’t work in this and stuff, and just talking to other labor people and everything. There’s only one answer for what to do next. It’s not anything anybody wants. It’s very difficult, it’s illegal, but there’s only one thing you can do. We just saw what happened. You can’t trust a president that says he’s pro-labor. You can’t trust anybody from either party who says they’re pro-labor. You can’t trust a CEO who says he has his best interests at heart and he’s just doing his job for his stock… I mean, maybe that’s true, but, definitely, you can’t trust them.
So there’s only one group of people you can trust, and that’s the people around you, and there’s only one thing you can do. There’s only one answer here. It’s just about when it actually happens and who actually does it. It might sound nuts to somebody, but if you just look… What is it? Since we’re living in Paul Volcker’s world, right, this is the world he created and this is the world neoliberalism created, and they wanted to make sure something like what I’m saying never, ever happened again. But it’s probably what has to happen again.
Marilee Taylor: Can I jump in here? It’s what –
John Tormey: I’m done.
Marilee Taylor: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s what will happen one way or the other because –
John Tormey: Yeah, it’s inevitable.
Marilee Taylor: Exactly. The conditions still exist. The conditions are not changing. The conditions that we find so objectionable that we’re willing to strike in ass-deep snow in December and any other conditions that are necessary. But until those central issues are resolved, there’s no other way, as you pointed out, John. To me, it’s like how did the Civil Rights Movement fight for desegregation? They sat at the lunch counters in violation of every goddamn Jim Crow law. That’s what they did. And they won millions, tens of millions, many of us, well, maybe of the age, but tens, hundreds of millions worldwide to their just struggle, and I believe that potential exists here. I think that working people and young people, regardless of industry, can feel it. It is palpable.
You could feel the changes in the consciousness that are going on in not just the activities and the discussions but in the method and the types of discussions we’re having. I’ve gotten a few calls with people I don’t even know, they must have gotten my number from a press release or something, to express solidarity. I didn’t answer because I don’t answer calls I don’t know, pretty much, because of spam and all that mess. They kept calling. So I finally just answered, yeah? Oh, is this Railroad Workers United? I’m like, what? I want to tell you I support… I’m out of the Teamsters local… I won’t mention it because I don’t want to put anybody in any position. Just a worker, somebody that wanted to be heard. So we see that.
I think the other thing that we are so privileged to see is that I think it’s like going to church on Christmas Eve or something for midnight mass and you want the rebirth and you see the – I’m not religious at all, but you see. That’s what I think we’re seeing. We’re seeing each other stand up, and we’re seeing that we actually have a mighty force when we look at ourselves and not to some suit, whether they’re a CEO suit or a scab suit or whatever. I don’t know. I’m excited. I mean, I’m exhausted from these last days. But it’s like hearing a civil rights church hymn. You can feel it, and you can feel the reaction when you’re in a room with these people. I don’t know. Matt, what do you think? You talk to people. I don’t know how many you run into in a day at work. I don’t want to hog all the time, is what I’m saying.
Matthew Parker: I think if there’s anything that’s good that’s come out of this, what it’s done is it’s raised the consciousness of the media and the public enough that it’s given us a chance to get our voice out there and have our side of the story heard. As we’ve done that, we have seen a lot of support come up. Max, you’ve been an absolute rockstar for us in helping us get the word out. Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done. You’ve really taken on this issue and educated yourself on it. If the administration and Congress understood 10% of what you know about this now, the outcome of this might have been different. So thank you for everything that you’ve done.
There’s got to be accountability here. For years, we’ve talked about who our friends are and who they aren’t, and typically what we’ve heard from the labor side is Republicans bad, Democrats good. Well, guess what? The first thing that was voted on was the resolution to force the TA and block us from striking. In Nevada, we have six members of Congress, four in the House and two senators. Only one of those is Republican, and it was the Republican who voted against that. Everybody else voted for it. So we don’t have friends on either side. That’s what we’ve learned through this. But there’s got to be accountability. We’ve had an outpouring of support from other members of labor, other unions and labor organizations saying, we’ve got your back. Okay, well, the next two years, we’re going to find out whether or not they really do, because something’s got to be done here. There’s got to be accountability. Are these people really going to have our backs? What are they going to do about it?
But, again, I think there’s a lot to do in terms of continuing to educate people. Because the more we educate people, the more we get people on our side. This fight with these rail carriers is bigger than those of us in the industry can take on. We need a bigger force, and we’ve got those people. The more we get the word out and people learn about that, we’ve got those people falling in behind us, that’s what we need to do, and that’s what a lot of us have really been working to do through this. We’ve got to keep that up. But, again, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to hold these people accountable, and we’ve got to make sure that these members of labor, these other members of labor, who have pledged to have our backs really do.
Because, obviously, we can’t win as long as we’re hamstrung. This is what the Railway Labor Act does. It hamstrings us from taking self-help. We don’t have the same rights that other union members do, and a lot of people don’t understand that until you start explaining that to them. As the president of our Central Labor Council here in Northern Nevada, I think, has so eloquently referred to it, he refers to it as the Railway Anti-Labor Act. That’s really what it is. And that’s got to change, too. Somewhere down the line, we’ve got to change that. Railroad workers are never going to have any power. This last week, I read something from Labor Secretary Walsh saying that he hopes now in the future that the railroads and the unions will sit down and negotiate this. The man’s delusional if he thinks that’s going to happen.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, fuck off.
John Tormey: Why would they? Why would they?
Matthew Parker: He has no clue how this works. Get with the program here, sir, and figure out what’s really going on here. You’re not helping us at all until you understand what’s happening here, and, obviously, they don’t.
Jay: You’re right. You’re exactly right. Actually, your point earlier about the doctors and stuff, look at your healthcare conglomerates now. In Central Pennsylvania, you have UPMC and you have all these big conglomerates showing up, telling the doctors how to do their jobs, what medicines they can prescribe. And just think about this for a minute. This goes across so many different disciplines: railroad workers, nurses, doctors, you name it. There’s so many skilled professions out there. But it’s difficult to find a primary care physician anymore. Why is that? Well, I’ll tell you why that is. It’s because of this corporate mentality.
Capitalism, if properly managed, is not a bad thing. It’s what built America. But the trouble is when you don’t properly manage that, when you don’t properly regulate it, you run into a situation almost like cancer. Everybody has cancer in their body, but your immune system generally regulates it and controls it, and most people will never end up running into a situation where they die of cancer because of that.
However, if you let it run rampant, it’s always fatal. What they’re doing right now in this society with the top 0.1% – Not even 1% anymore, but the top 0.1% is where all the wealth is. If this madness continues, it’s a race to the bottom, is what it is. I mean, we had the COVID outbreak. We had all this stuff happen, and this is just since 2018. I mean, my God, our country’s unrecognizable in just that short time.
We heard this battle about ivermectin and all of that stuff. Try anything, for God’s sake, when you have something you don’t understand and see if it works. But they’re telling the doctors you can’t do that. You can’t give them that because it’s off-label use. We use off-label medicines all the time. For God’s sake, what are we doing? Then you look at what we’re trying to organize here, and you look at the power of the people. What we don’t understand anymore as a society is we’re not divided the way we think we are. But every time you turn on the corporate media, what do you hear? Climate change, racism, transgender this, something that, blah, blah, blah, and all that is is a distraction tactic to keep everybody purposefully divided so that we don’t look at stuff like this and say, hey, you know what? You might be a Democrat but I’m really not as different as you are. Or, hey, you know what? You might be a Republican, but shit, we share a lot of the same views.
And I said to Max earlier this week, I said, we ought to drop the R and the D and just make them all Es: Elitist Party of America, and just classify them as that bunch because that’s pretty much what they’ve represented themselves to be. The Constitution gives us a lot of power. Every time you hear somebody talk about something, first thing they say when they don’t understand is, oh, it’s unconstitutional. There’s a lot of things that aren’t in the Constitution, but they’re also a lot of things that are, and here’s the reality.
Okay, maybe you can’t legally strike, but we don’t live in communist China. You can still walk out the damn door and have the same impact. And I think Matt was making this point earlier, it may be months until this happens, but if people continue to leave at the rate they’re leaving, you’re going to have the same effect as a strike, because you can’t work the people you have like animals. Eventually they’ll wear down and they’ll leave too. What are you going to do then? Your train’s going to run itself with Trip Optimizer? Yeah, bullshit. Movement planner will say “off-plan authority ahead” and have every train looking at each other and nobody will know what to do. And then the managers are going to be sitting there scratching their heads saying, oh, the book didn’t say this could happen.
Well, I got to tell you, years ago you started at the ground and you worked your way up. The people that were in management were conductors, engineers, yard masters, train masters. When you wanted to be a plumber, you went with a plumber as a tradesman and you learned hands on. Electricians, the same thing. All of these specialty trades. Now you go to college, you get an HVAC degree, you come out with a D, but you just barely made it. You can’t even charge a damn air conditioning system. I mean, which end of the engine does the coal go in? I mean, you look around society and you sit there and you wonder sometimes, and you see some of the things that go on, some of the things that people do, and I’m going to be blunt about it, the incredible stupidity that you see some days, and you wonder how does this person put their pants on in the morning [laughs]?
And the railroad seems to attract a shit ton of them into management for some reason. I mean, I don’t know guys, it’s at this point we’ve exhausted all of our legal options, literally. I mean we have. Voting has proven to be a joke. I mean they’re hacking that now in the name of the environment because they don’t want to use paper or something. When they went to electronic voting, we all knew what was going to happen. And what are we going to do, guys? I mean, think about it. Short of basically saying enough is enough as a country and all saying, that’s it. You’re done. What are they going to do? Fire everybody? They’re going to put you all in jail? Good luck.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, honestly, I’ve been thinking about that –
Matthew Parker: If I could interject something there, Max, I’m not so sure that jail wouldn’t be a better alternative than working for the [inaudible].
Jay: Right [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this because one of the last things I want to do in the year, and I’ve been talking to a number of railroaders about this, is for this podcast I interviewed some of the RMT members in the UK who are on continual strikes. They’ve been sending messages of solidarity to you guys throughout all this. They’re still doing periodic strikes, trying to put pressure. They’re in the midst of a cost of living crisis. And now what you’re seeing is that spreading, where you’re seeing educators in the UK also go on strike. You’re seeing the postal workers go on strike. It’s going to take something of that sort of magnitude that can be united across these different struggles, where those different struggles feel like they’re mutually supporting each other and fighting against a common enemy. And I think that is the real kind of mandate that we all have here is how do we contribute to that?
Marilee said something in the interview that she and I did together on Breaking Points that really touched me. She ended the interview on this, because she said, as much as we railroaders are asking for your solidarity, please reach out to us when you need solidarity. We will be there for you. That was a really powerful moment, and I’ve seen people in the comments just being like, wow, yes, we need that kind of cross-industry solidarity. We need that sense that it’s us as working people who make this country and this world run. And it is us who are being taken advantage of by a powerful few who are sucking up all of the value from all of that. I’m thinking of that great speech from the movie Matewan: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who work and those who don’t. You work. They don’t.”
And I say that because I think, as we all have already acknowledged, within the rail industry itself, when you have 12 different craft unions, within other industries where you’ve got tiers of workers, you’ve got first tier workers who’ve been working longer, they get better benefits and yada yada. You have second tier workers who get paid less, and then you’ve got temps, basically all on the same floor doing the same job but getting paid wildly different amounts. So you get that divide and conquer shit. It infiltrates so many aspects of our lives, in our workplaces, in our culture. And it’s something that, again, the media is constantly trying to manufacture. It’s something politicians are constantly trying to manufacture and stir up within us.
And so I would say that everything that we’re saying here has to also be undergirded by that, because as much as I agree with everything that we said, of all the ways that people try to divide us or we try to divide ourselves, it’s also important to remember who is on our side and what role class plays in that. Because Nancy fucking Pelosi and these rich ghouls talking about anti-racism is very different from a Black coworker talking about anti-racism. And I think it’s important to bring that up because the working class folks who are trying to fight against racism and fight for better working conditions for workers, they’re on your side.
They’ve been posting about it and talking about it all year. The trans workers at Starbucks who are having their rights violated left and right, getting fired for organizing their workplaces, they’re on your side. They’ve been expressing solidarity with Railroad Workers United all year. And so it’s like, how do we as a class build that sort of solidarity and not let the ruling class divide us along those lines? And move forward in a way like what’s going on in the UK, like what happened in India with the farmer’s strikes? How do we take that groundswell we’ve been talking about and open the pathways for the working class to unleash itself instead of creating canals and cul-de-sacs where the energy has nowhere to go? You know what I’m saying, Matt? You had something you wanted to say.
Matthew Parker: I did on the issue of solidarity. In 2019, I think when the UAW was on strike, we have a GM parts facility here in Reno, and I went out and walked the picket line with those workers, got some of my brothers and sisters from both the transportation unions here. We went out and supported them. I cooked, I made pots of chili and beef stew, went out there and fed those workers myself, and four of my other brothers from my union local kicked in money together and we paid rent for one of those members, one of those UAW members who needed some assistance as they were striking. And when that dispute ended and they won a good contract, there was pride in that. It was like, right on brothers and sisters, you did good. You won the battle.
Earlier this year, our Teamsters local here in the Reno area struck Keolis, the contractor for our city bus service three times, and they were fixing to strike them a fourth time before they finally caved and gave them the agreement they wanted. We went out and walked the picket lines with them again. I took up a collection from my brothers and sisters in my union local at one of our meetings and put together a bunch of money, went out and bought gift cards from a local grocery store to help out their members that were in need and everything. And again, when they won their battle there and got a good contract, there was pride in that. There’s no victory for us on the railroad side in what has happened here. I don’t see where we could stand up and be proud of what we’ve achieved here and call this a real victory.
Jay: Yeah, that’s a great point, Matt. I mean it really is. Think about that just for a minute, guys. How do we get information? This is something we have to be cognizant of, because what you let into your home and who you listen to can determine how much unity and solidarity you can build. So if everything you get is from national mainstream media and you’re not talking to your brothers and sisters, or everything comes from a Facebook platform or any of these other corporate sites where censorship is actually happening and we know it’s happening, they’re going to squash this. They’re in bed with the BNSF and UP and NS and CSX. They’re right in bed with them. Starbucks, Amazon, you name it. And what are they going to do? Oh well, we’re going to stick together.
I mean, honestly, they demonstrate solidarity in a lot of ways almost more than we do, because while we’re squabbling about silly things that MSNBC or Fox or CNN or any of these other ones brings into your television set every night, but really what we should be doing is talking to each other and saying, hey, did you see what’s going on down the street down there? What do you think that means? And if we really had those conversations and we really unified behind each other, I think you’d see a massive change in how things would go.
Did you hear anything about what Matt just talked about with any of these contracts being won? Not a damn thing. You didn’t hear anything on TV about it. Nothing. What you do hear is about Amazon successfully squashing union organization, that you hear. Starbucks closing stores down because they’re “unprofitable”. Bullshit. Ain’t unprofitable at all. You’re trying to squash organization is what you’re doing. And what do you hear on the news? Oh, Starbucks was successful. And what does that do to people? It plays on the unconscious mind and it makes you feel powerless. It makes you feel like you have nowhere to go, nowhere to turn to, nobody cares, nobody knows what your plight is, when in fact the reality of it is quite the opposite. We just don’t know it and we don’t know how to bring it together.
John Tormey: I’m just going to explain to people just how scared they are. Those people you were talking about that are in the same… The elite class solidarity. That doesn’t stem from them being smarter or them being better tacticians or anything. They are scared shitless. They made a law so you can’t sympathy strike. They made a law so the railroads can’t strike because they have all that leverage, if the fertilizer doesn’t make it to the farms and stuff like that. They are scared to fucking death of what happens if everybody starts moving in the same direction at once.
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.