United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Calls for the Nationalization of US Railroads

by Auberon

On January 30th, 2023, the UE General Executive Board published a statement on their website titled “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership,” which called for the nationalization of US railways, criticized railway companies for abusing their workers, and stressed the necessity to upgrade greener technologies.[1] They “…demand that Congress immediately begin a process of bringing our nation’s railroads under public ownership.”[2] Importantly, we must understand that calls for nationalization alone are not enough, and nationalization has limitations inside a capitalist system.

The UE, founded in 1936, is an independent union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO (a largely liberal and inept organization), that proudly boasts about its “democratic structure and progressive policies” claiming that it is a “Union For Everyone” and that they “welcome any group of workers who want to join a militant, democratic union.”[3] The CPUSA was a critical founder and ally of the UE during its explosive growth after its formation in 1936, but would later sink its revisionist teeth into UE during the peak of Browder’s revisionism: “…[The CPUSA] downplay[ed] UE’s unique political struggle over control of the job in the plants, then pushing no-strike pledges during WWII…”[4]

UE stresses on its website that it is different from other unions, and specifically those affiliated with the AFL-CIO. UE even claims that they undertake independent political action not specifically dictated by the two major capitalist-bourgeois parties: “UE maintains that both parties are too closely tied to the wealthy and big corporations to be dependable advocates for working people. UE political action is issue-oriented. We independently formulate our own political goals — not taking them from any political party or any other group — then fight for them through political action.”[5] UE also claims that it “…emphasizes rank-and-file involvement and grass-roots-style activism to a much greater extent than many other unions.”[6] Despite UE’s claim that both parties are tied to the wealthy, UE locals 1118 and 1177 endorsed Chicago Democrat Brandon Johnson in his mayoral race, which he recently won.[7]

Solutionary Rail, an environmental rail advocacy group, co-hosted a virtual panel with Carl Rosen, the General President of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), Scott Slawson, the president of UE Local 506, and other leading EU organizers from around the country on March 1st, 2023 to discuss UE’s proposal.[8] More information about the event, and the video of the event, can be found here: https://www.solutionaryrail.org/20230301

UE’s call to action regarding the nationalization of railroads comes just weeks after the environmental and public disaster in East Palestine (Which New Spark covered here: https://newspark.news/current-events/east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment/). The East Palestine disaster was caused mainly by decades of corporate mismanagement, disinvestment, and the implementation of the draconian practice of “precision scheduled railroading” — a practice designed to keep railroads functioning with a bare minimum number of workers that rarely allows railway workers time off (even for medical purposes) which is indicative of the absolute negligent state of US railway infrastructure.[9]

UE appears to understand the basis for many of these issues and places the blame squarely on the capitalist railway monopolies, like BNSF (owned by billionaire Warren Buffet), Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern. They state:

“Railroads are, like utilities, ‘natural monopolies.’ The consolidation of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. into five massive companies over the past several decades has made it clear that there is no ‘free market’ in rail transportation. With most customers having no other choice, and no central authority mandating long-term planning, each individual railroad company has little incentive to make investments in infrastructure and every temptation to take as much of their income as possible as profits. Even Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates rail, has called the railroads ‘monopolists’ who are cutting services and raising prices because ‘that’s the easiest way for them to get rich.’

Yet the private owners of our nation’s Class 1 railroads have shown themselves utterly incapable of facing the challenge of the climate crisis, dealing fairly with their own workers, or even meeting the most basic needs of their customers. The railroad companies cannot even be said to be in the business of moving freight; they are merely in the business of using their monopoly control over the nation’s rail infrastructure to squeeze as much profit as possible from customers and workers at the behest of their Wall Street shareholders.”[10]

 Although UE appears to be one of the more active and militant unions when compared to the AFL-CIO, the workers of UE must realize the insufficiencies of calling upon Congress to nationalize rail. The current regulatory and legal landscape is highly advantageous to the capitalist robber-barons and their political goons in DC who personally profit from every sort of bribe and lobbying campaign. The current state of US rail, as admitted by UE, is highly advantageous to railway companies and therefore, the capitalist US government. For example, railway unions must undergo several mandated bargaining phases, and “cool off” periods (formulated in the hopes that the militant and class-conscious workers will give up and not strike), to dissuade workers from striking. UE is well aware of the special privileges railway companies have, commenting “[t]his intolerable state of affairs almost led to a railroad strike at the end of last year, until President Biden and Congress — clearly willing to intervene in the ‘market’ when workers threaten to withdraw their labor — imposed a contract on the workers that did not even contain the workers’ bottom-line demand of adequate sick leave.”[11] Workers must organize, understand, and utilize their collective bargaining power to defeat the Railway Labor Act, and any other obstacle, to weaken the railroad barons and the federal government, and thus strengthen the collective power of the railway workers.

Congress, controlled by the two parties of the capitalist class, will likely not nationalize the railways, unless an extraordinary amount of pressure, beyond a scale we are currently able to fathom, is applied. Even if such nationalization occurred the prospect of privatization is always on the table for the capitalist state — as is proven by the privatization of the nationalized railway system in the United Kingdom, the once much beloved British Railways, between 1994 and 1997. So long as capitalism is the economic mode of production in the United States, public utilities will always be on the table for privatization — as we have seen during the deregulation of public utilities during the Reagan era. These conditions render a call for nationalization, even if realized, ultimately useless if the workers of the country at large are not able to hold power themselves, rather than the bourgeoisie merely making temporary concessions to the workers.

The rail workers of the United States have a long history of resisting the capitalists and the US capitalist state. Rail workers, organizing and utilizing the collective power of their class, leads to an increase in working-class solidarity and class consciousness. However, class-conscious, militant rail workers should always be aware of the concrete limitations under capitalism of nationalization. Capitalism is capitalism, whether there are private or public utilities. All class-conscious and militant rail workers should ferociously fight against the blatant anti-union and anti-worker policies of the US rail companies (brokered and supported by the federal government) that delay and dissuade strikes, which give the working class their power — no railways, no economy!

The effects and utility of this call to action remain to be seen, but New Spark will continue to cover the struggles of railway unions and railway workers with keen interest. If you have any information or would like to be interviewed by New Spark about the railway struggle, please contact us!

[1] UE General Executive Board, “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership,” UE, January 30th, 2023, https://www.ueunion.org/political-action/2023/railroads-must-be-brought-under-public-ownership

[2] UE General Executive Board, “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership.”

[3] “Who We Are,” UE, https://www.ueunion.org/uewho.html

[4] Nick Driedger, “Beyond Red Baiting: Reading Between The Lines Of The History Of United Electrical Workers,” August 19th, 2020, https://organizing.work/2020/08/was-it-really-just-red-baiting-reading-between-the-lines-on-the-history-of-the-ue/

[5] “UE Independent Political Action,” UE,  https://www.ueunion.org/political-action

[6] “UE Independent Political Action,” UE,  https://www.ueunion.org/political-action

[7] “UE Western Region, Chicago Locals Endorse Brandon Johnson for Mayor of Chicago,” UE, March 25th, 2023, https://www.ueunion.org/political-action/2023/ue-western-region-chicago-locals-endorse-brandon-johnson-for-mayor-of-chicago

[8] Bill Moyer, “Expressions of Solidarity: UE’s Call for Public Ownership of Railroads & Environmental Justice Perspectives,“ Solutionary Rail, March 23rd, 2023, https://www.solutionaryrail.org/20230301

[9] UE General Executive Board, “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership.”

[10] UE General Executive Board, “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership.”

[11] UE General Executive Board, “Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership.”

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