Railroad workers say nationalization of rails is what democracy looks like
Gene J. Puskar / AP

LAS VEGAS—For the first time in slightly more than 100 years Railroad Workers United, is demanding public ownership of railroad infrastructure in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Then, railroads “would be operated in the public interest,” it says.

Unlike the major media in the U.S. which tries to divorce the threat to democracy from the fight for economic justice, their call for nationalization, clearly a demand for economic democracy, is an aspect of democracy that papers like the New York Times don’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Witness the second day in a row today when their lead story portrays public belief that democracy is in danger simply as nothing much more than Democrats and Republicans not trusting one another. The wealth gap fueled by lack of economic democracy never comes up in the polling on which they base their story.

For the railroad workers, democracy is impossible without economic justice and their push for nationalization is itself a fight for democracy.

RWU’s Steering Committee unanimously approved the public ownership resolution on October 6 and posted it for comment by rail workers, unions, and other interested parties, including the rest of the labor movement. There’ve been no responses yet.

The GOP’s attempt to gain support by blasting Biden for inflation, for example, masks the fact that GOP lawmakers are a key part of the undemocratic caucuses of representatives that prevent any curbs on corporate price gouging. An excess profits tax, which they oppose, would be a democratic intervention in the fight against that corporate price rigging. Measures like that and the nationalization of transportation networks both would be major steps toward fixing democratic and economic issues at the same time.

RWU says “more than a decade of declining service” by the nation’s freight railroads shows rail bosses are more interested in satisfying Wall Street interests in profits and dividends than in carrying out the roads’ legal mandate to provide freight service to shippers, customers, and the country. Federal ownership, it declares, would reverse that priority.

The organization, which includes rank and file rail workers cutting across union lines and in all rail crafts, also notes other transportation infrastructure—subways and bus systems, roads, bridges, and airports—is by and large publicly owned, with lower overhead and better working conditions.

“The rail industry has come to focus solely on the ’operating ratio’” of profits to revenues “as a measure of their success, and in doing so have engaged in massive stock buybacks and other measures that deliver short-term gains for stockholders but at the expense of the long-term health and vitality of the industry,” RWU’s resolution says.

“The Class I carriers’ failures to move freight effectively have contributed greatly to the ongoing supply chain crisis, resulting in some of the highest inflation rates in many years,” it adds—a crisis made worse by cutting 29% of all rail workers since 2014. Other workers have left due to stagnant pay and terrible working conditions.

The Fortune 500 corporations among the big freight railroads—including the Class I freight railroads Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and the Kansas City Southern–“raked in record profits, in both ‘good’ years and ‘bad,’ right through the ‘Great Recession,’ the pandemic, and otherwise, right up to the most recent quarterly financial announcements,” RWU notes.

In evidence presented to the federal government, rail unions have noted that since the job cuts began, the big freight railroads have garnered $146 billion combined in profits.

Rail bosses opposed safety improvements

Rail bosses have also opposed or delayed safety improvements, fought their unions tooth and nail, and—given that they own almost all rail tracks in the U.S. outside the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor—hamstrung Amtrak, too, RWU said.

The bosses have “taken a hostile stance towards unions, refused to bargain in good faith, consistently demanding concessions, all the while expecting these “essential workers” to labor through the pandemic without a wage increase,” it adds.

The nation’s big Class I freight railroads have historically been in private hands, although the government had to create and manage Conrail in 1976. Lawmakers erected it out of the bankrupt ruins of the unwieldy amalgamation of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, plus four other Northeastern and Midwestern railroads. Conrail became profitable and went to a public stock offering in 1987. A decade later, Norfolk Southern and CSX bought it and split it up, leaving only local service.

A check of historical records and abstracts, as well as more-modern analyses, shows state and local governments operate just over 100 small railroads. They’re usually former branch lines for the big trunk railroads, operated to keep service going to local shippers. Some governments contract out the actual operations, Transportation Quarterly reported in its most recent study.

The closest analogy to what RWU wants was the 1918 Railroad Control Act, an emergency measure giving the federal government management takeover of the nation’s rail lines to ensure the shipment of military personnel and supplies during World War I.

The feds ran the railroads “for the duration of the war” and “could do so up to 21 months after” its end, the reference book says. Actual control began in March 1918 and lasted for 26 months. The government compensated rail firms for their use of stock and tracks, and it improved working conditions and pay. At the end, the repeal law turning the railroads back to their owners—some of the nation’s wealthiest capitalists—also gave the government more regulatory power over rail rates and routes.

RWU noted that at the end of the war, U.S. rail workers voted 306,720-1,466 to keep the railroads nationalized. So did the 1920 American Federation of Labor convention. The weighted vote was 29,159-8,349. But union leaders wanted the return of private ownership. This time, RWU says, the craft unions should back federal ownership of rail infrastructure.

“In the last four years the rail industry has shed nearly a third of its workforce, and it clearly intends to continue that trend as it pushed for dangerous and inefficient single crew operation of trains and ‘self-protecting freight pools,’” RWU Steering Committee member Paul Lindsey, speaking for the group, said in a statement.

“If the carriers get their way at the bargaining table, the workforce will continue to decline in numbers, along with safety, efficiency, and service. The Class I carriers are moving less freight today than 16 years ago, and they are doing a poor job with that. Rail shipments and travel should be expanding in today’s world, not contracting.”

Otherwise, RWU warns, more freight shippers will turn to highway vehicles. Reliance on them, it said, “threatens to bankrupt and destroy towns and cities across the country and contribute to ecological disaster” due to carbon emissions which cause global warming.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.