Economics/Class Relations

US Railroad Workers ‘Under the Thumb’


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Probably the most important US labor event of 2022 has been the 115,000 US railroad workers and their unions attempt to bargain a new contract with the super profitable Railroad companies. As of December 2, 2022, however, that negotiations has not turned out well for the workers. The US government—the Biden administration and Democrat controlled US Congress with the help of virtually all the Republicans—have repeatedly intervened on the side of the management in the negotiations.

Beginning last September, that intervention has ensured that the workers would not be able to strike in order to advance their interests and demands. This past week both the administration and Congress have made a railroad strike illegal by passing legislation to that effect.

The right of workers to strike has been under attack at least since 1947 when Congress passed what was called the ‘Taft-Hartley’ Act that year. That legislation ensured that government and politicians reserved the right to force workers back to work for 90 days in the event contract negotiations failed and a strike was imminent. During a 90 day ‘cooling off’ period, as it was called, government mediators had the opportunity to join the negotiations, try to browbeat the parties to get them to settle, and to make a recommendation as to the terms of a settlement. During the ‘cooling off’ management of course also had 90 more days to prepare to prepare to defeat a strike once the 90 days was up.

Taft-Hartley limited the right to strike in many other ways as well. It prohibited sympathy strikes by unions. That’s where unions go on strike to support workers in other unions already on strike.  The 1947 law also required any union about to negotiate, and potentially later to strike, to notify the federal government and give it a ‘heads up’ of the pending bargaining and potential strike. A special government body, the Federal Mediation Service, was established to allow government direct intervention in negotiations thereafter if it so decided. Taft-Hartley also embedded in legislation prior anti-strike court decisions, including a Supreme Court decision prior to 1947 that ruled workers could no longer legally engage in what were successful ‘sit down’ strikes of the 1930s and early 1940s.


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