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Rail labour's quest for unity.

A year ago, US rail union activists marked the 100th anniversary of two of the greatest struggles in 19th century labour history: the Great Northern strike of April 1894 and the Pullman boycott/strike of June-July 1894. These two struggles not only brought Eugene v. Debs into the public eye, but they also placed rail labour unity at the center of their movement. This unity remains vital -- and elusive -- a full century later. Union activists in the 1990s have once again placed unity on their agenda. In April 1991, a nationwide strike of 235,000 workers was ended by federal government intervention after only 17 hours. A year and a half later, the scenario was repeated with minor variations. In both cases, Presidential Emergency Boards appointed under the terms of the Railway Labor Act (1926) forced workers to accept management's terms.

These events included intensive rank-and-file involvement around the theme of intercraft solidarity, from large cities like Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Kansas City, to small rail towns like Alliance, Nebraska, and Glendive, Montana. Since the anti-NAFTA campaign there has also been some effort to build union solidarity across the Canadian/US/ Mexican borders.

Over 1993-'94, national union leaders developed a strategy for the 1995 bargaining round. Its premises were simple -- unity among the unions; divide and conquer among the railroads; keep the government at bay by avoiding a nationwide shutdown. The unions would seek to take on each railroad individually, with the timing and the target strategically selected. A victory would then establish a pattern, and the unions would roll up one railroad at a time, forcing them to hew to the new pattern. This is similar to the strategy adopted in Canada.

Unity among the unions is critical to this strategy. If any union breaks ranks to spread a strike to other carriers, it might open the door to government intervention. Or if any union breaks ranks to accept contract terms, it might set a pattern which would undermine the other unions.

The July-August 1994 Soo Line/ CP Rail strike, a regional struggle, put this national strategy to the test. And the unions earned less than a passing grade.

The bargaining impasse between the UTU and CP/Soo had lasted so long that what had been the last chapter of the 1988 round of bargaining had become the first chapter of the 1995 round. Local activists from several unions organized coalitions, involved their families, set up food banks and voice mail information systems, reached out to the rest of the labour movement, held rallies and demonstrations, and shut most of the railroad for 47 days.

But the union leadership's strategy was negative - that nothing be done which might provoke government intervention. They resisted suggestions from local activists that pickets be used to shut down transfer operations where scab freight was being shunted to other railroads, or that more aggressive action be taken against management-operated CP/ Soo trains. While they were willing to undertake informational picketing across the Canadian border, they refrained from any actions which might disrupt the CP's sizeable Canadian activities. This negative strategy allowed CP/Soo to service its most important customers and to continue to earn sufficient revenues to remain economically sound.

In late August, as political pressure mounted, inter-union solidarity began to crumble. The national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) accused the UTU of having placed "jurisdictional" issues on the bargaining table. Unless these issues were withdrawn, he informed the other unions, he would "release" his members to cross the UTU's picket lines. The UTU leadership claimed that the BLE was mistaken, and they refused to make any changes in their bargaining posture. Offers of mediation from other rail unions were spurned.

Local activists were aghast at the unwillingness of either national organization to back down. When the BLE officially released its members to return to work on August 22, only a handful of the 450 did so. But on August 27, seizing on the BLE's "treason" as an excuse, the UTU announced its intent to expand the strike to all other rail lines, knowing that this would provoke federal government intervention. A vacationing President Clinton interrupted a golf game to order an end to the strike.

National union leaders' strategy for 1995 has been severely damaged by the inter-union warfare which ended the CP/Soo strike. It suffered an additional blow when the rail carriers not only refused to bargain locally but also found a federal judge who agreed with them. That the 1995 bargaining round might turn out as badly as 1991/1992 is a real possibility.

But this does not mean that rail labor activists have given up the ghost. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) has launched a `membership mobilization' campaign which has infused new life into this 45,000 member union, and delegates to their 1994 national convention voted to endorse Labor Party Advocates as a possible alternative to the US's two party system. The BLE on the Union Pacific Railroad has set up a `Solidarity Council' which has organized informational picketing at major terminals and the recent stockholders meeting. They have also organized a "Joint Safety Committee" with the UTU, despite the continuing tensions between these unions at a national level. The CSX and Norfolk Southern General Chairmen's Associations organized a mass rally in St. Louis on June 24, urging all of those who attend to wear red shirts to show their rage at their treatment by the railroads.

These recent events show that labour unity remains the necessary and elusive key to the future as well as having been the history of US rail labour.

Peter Rachleff teaches US labour history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has been involved with local intercraft coalitions for the past decade.
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Title Annotation:railroad strike
Author:Rachleff, Peter
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:967
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