In Part 2 of our interview with Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief of The Intercept, we discuss his new piece, “The Railroad Fight Was the Product of Eight Years of Militant Rank-and-File Organizing,” and the pending vote on Senator Bernie Sanders’s proposed Yemen War Powers Resolution in Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Earlier this month, President Biden signed into law a bill prohibiting a rail strike and imposing a deal rejected by over half of unionized rail workers over its lack of paid sick leave. Labor activists have condemned Biden and Democratic Party leaders for failing to secure paid time off for workers who become ill.
We’re continuing our conversation with Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief of The Intercept. His latest piece is headlined, “The Railroad Fight Was the Product of Eight Years of Militant Rank-and-File Organizing.”
Ryan, it’s great to have you with us. The subtitle of that piece, “Railroad unions haven’t been known for putting up a fight since the 19th century, but newly radicalized workers forced their way into the national conversation.” The power of this long piece that you did on your newsletter, Bad News, on Substack is the people that you profile and how they became radicalized. Talk about what happened in Washington and how railroad workers pushed themselves into this national conversation.
RYAN GRIM: The way that all of this might have been expected to go down, if you’re a railroad worker, is that the Biden administration sends a contract that you’ve rejected to Congress, Congress rubber stamps it, sends it back to the White House, and Washington moves on about its business. Like, that is essentially how railroaders have been treated in Washington for roughly the last hundred years, since the creation of the Railway Labor Act, which basically takes power away from workers because it allows Congress to step in. And so, as a result of that, the workers had not been mobilized internally. And at the same time, the Railway Labor Act also has a shop union clause, which basically means that its unions get legal recognition. So, a lot of the unions over the decades didn’t have a ton of incentive to kind of organize their own workers internally and fight for a better deal.
What happened is that, around 2014, when it looked like Republicans in 2016 had a chance of capturing a trifecta — you know, they had the House and the Senate after that election — railroad union leaders started to think, “Wait a minute. What happens if Republicans take full control of government, and they change the RLA, they take the shop union clause out, and now the workers would be able to walk out of the union?” They said, “What have we done for them that would keep them in the union?”
And so, one of the craft unions, which is the management of way, BMWED, did something which is pretty radical. They spent millions of dollars bringing in a militant organizer and giving him the funding to hire his own organizers and crisscross the country and train the workers, find the ones who wanted to be involved in the union, train them in how to be involved in the next contract negotiation, how to talk to their colleagues and their comrades, you know, and what it meant to be a union, what it meant to fight together.
Now, because of the way that the railroads have been slashing pay — I mean, not slashing pay, but slashing staffing; you’ve seen a lot of coverage of that as a result of this fight — dues were plummeting to BMWED in 2020. After spending about $12 million over seven years in this internal organizing project called a CAT, they phased it out. Now, out of that, a lot of workers who had been radicalized formed their own Rank and File United, BMWED Rank and File United, as a kind of volunteer effort, which then was the one that kind of led the way in Washington over the last week. When union leadership was ready to play the normal — their normal role of getting steamrolled in D.C., a lot of these workers said, “No, we need to fight for more.” And they teamed up. They had met — basically, through the Labor Notes Conference, they had made connections that then gave them entrée into the office of Jamaal Bowman. They worked with Jamaal Bowman in November and then December to kind of put this sick days strategy. Then the union leadership had contacts in Bernie Sanders’ office. And so, that’s how the entire thing developed.
So, it’s a really fascinating case of kind of bottom-up organizing — not winning yet, but paying dividends in the sense they were able to draw national attention to the issue. Now everybody knows that railroaders don’t have sick days. They haven’t had sick days forever. Finally, people know. There’s going to be a rally on Capitol Hill today at 1:00 with Bernie Sanders, some of the Squad, some of the — and a bunch of union rail workers, continuing to push Biden. And so they feel like they’re closer to getting a victory on this issue than they ever have been, and it’s a result of organizing and fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ryan, I mean, if you can talk about this issue of paid sick leave? It might shock people who aren’t railroad workers, when you say, “Everyone knows they don’t get paid sick leave. They’ve never gotten it.”
RYAN GRIM: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’re now still in the pandemic.
RYAN GRIM: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is not only helpful to a worker to stay home, but to everyone, if someone is sick, to stay home. How is it accepted that they have never had paid sick leave? And then talk about how the bill was divided in two parts. You had the legislation to prevent a strike and then a separate vote on paid sick leave, which lost.
RYAN GRIM: Right. And so, previously, they would have been able — say, back in the 1980s, they would have been able to, say, kind of mark out, and there would be a substitute who would step in for them. What the railroads did since then is what they call PSR, precision scheduled railroading, which is trying to keep trains moving as often as possible with as few staff as possible, and they made the trains much longer. So, you might have trains, miles-long trains, that might have only kind of two staff on them. And so, the railroads’ argument is that if we only have two people on this train, and one of them calls out, then our entire network of systems falls apart. So they have these extreme, draconian attendance policies that are driving people out of the field, despite the fact that it pays better than a — you know, it pays significantly better than a median kind of working-class salary. So many people are leaving, because they just — they have no life. They’re on the road all the time, and it’s just brutal.
So, when Biden sent the contract to Congress, he said, “I want no changes to this. This has to be voted up or down.” Nancy Pelosi then said, “We’re voting on this. There will be no amendments allowed to this.” Jamaal Bowman, then, working with the BMWED Rank and File United, insisted on adding an amendment to it that would add sick days. So, I keep seeing people talk about the bill being split, but there wasn’t anything split, because there weren’t sick days on the table to begin with. You couldn’t split them out. What Pelosi did is she said, “The only way that you’re going to be allowed — that I’m going to allow this vote is if it’s added as an amendment that’s called an enrollment correction,” which means once both of them get passed, then the Senate will vote on the sick days, and then, if the Senate rejects the sick days, the Senate will pass the underlying bill through to Biden. And so that’s what they did. They passed both over to the Senate.
Now, the rail workers in November had spent a week in Washington. And I spoke to a number of them who met with members of the Squad, but also primarily focused on Senate Republicans. They believed that they had a shot at about 10 or 11 Senate Republicans, because you’ve been seeing a lot of populist, pro-worker rhetoric come out of Republicans. And this, to a lot of them, seemed like an easy one: “No sick days? All you want is a couple of sick days, and then we get some pro-worker cred that we can add to the kind of culture war stuff that we’re feeding to a working-class base?” So, as a result of those conversations, they felt like they had a decent shot of getting 10 to 11.
What they weren’t sure would happen or not was whether or not big business would throw all of its energy into this fight, because the railroads are a big industry, but in terms of kind of market cap and their revenue, they don’t compete with some of the bigger hitters in the economy, even though they’re so integral to the economy. It turned out that the Chamber of Commerce did step in and said, “We’re going to score this vote. Any Republicans that side with workers on this will be punished when it comes to election time.” Four of the hard “yes” votes that they had evaporated immediately. Two of the Republican senators told the railroaders that it was because of the Chamber of Commerce letter that they dropped off. They ended up getting six Republicans, which was five short, because they lost Joe Manchin, which they weren’t sure of until the very end. They even lobbied Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican senator, whose brother is a union railroader. And she, in the end, voted against the sick days.
AMY GOODMAN: Just go back to when you said two railroad workers on a train.
RYAN GRIM: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the entire staff. And again —
RYAN GRIM: Well, you would have — that’s —
AMY GOODMAN: — this is on a train that is how long?
RYAN GRIM: Sometimes six miles long. Now, that doesn’t count the engineer. So, but, yes, you’re right. It’s just — if you talk to some of these workers, you’re like, “That’s insane.” Like, you know, miles and miles long. And they’re just — and they’re pulling it down to, you know, the absolute bare minimum that they think they can get away with. And, you know, there are a lot of arguments that are raised as a result of this, that they feel like could implicate somebody like Pete Buttigieg, because if you can’t get sick days and —
AMY GOODMAN: Transportation secretary.
RYAN GRIM: Exactly. And if —
AMY GOODMAN: But, of course, also presidential aspirant.
RYAN GRIM: As presidential aspirant. If you don’t get sick days, and fatigue could become a safety issue, that is squarely within the domain of the Department of Transportation. So, one of the — so, they’re not only pushing Biden to say that, you know, we deserve sick days through an executive order, just like all other federal contract employees, but they’re also appealing to Buttigieg directly to say this is a health and safety issue. This is a supply chain issue that the Department of Transportation has oversight of. And so, you know, you would think that Pete Buttigieg might want to get on the right side of this, because he’s been on the wrong side so far of so many supply chain and transportation issues, like flight delays, flight cancellations, and on and on. If he wants to become president, you would think he would want at least one win as transportation secretary to run on, rather than just a litany of things that he could have done but didn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Ron Kaminkow, who is a locomotive engineer, organizer for Railroad Workers United. We spoke to him recently about the deal that was pushed through.
RON KAMINKOW: The rail industry has gouged their customers. They’ve shed themselves of about a third of their employees in the last six years. … The rail carriers see fit to dig in their heels, these Fortune 500 companies who have made … record profits these last 25 years, and refuse to give us anything. … And unfortunately, the “most labor-friendly president,” quote-unquote, we’ve ever had basically has opted to side with the Class One carriers.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer for Railroad Workers United. If you could comment on this, Ryan, but also part of the power of this extended piece that you just did on Bad News, your newsletter, is the profiling of workers. Introduce us to some.
RYAN GRIM: So, well, his colleague, Ross Grooters, at Railroad Workers United is profiled in that piece. What they’re trying to do is build this, basically, a cross-industry caucus of railroaders, because right now they’re divided into 12 different often-rival craft unions. You know, you’ve got the BLET. You’ve got the BMWED. You’ve got Teamsters representing two of the 12. You’ve got others who are in the IB — it’s just a complete mess, when you’re trying to put up a united front against the carriers. And so, what RWU is trying to do is pull them together.
RWU actually witnessed what was going on. Ross was telling me that back in 2016, as BMWED Rank and File United and as this CAT program that was mobilizing the rank and file was getting off the ground, they started seeing it in their union. They’re like, “Hey, what is Maintenance of Way doing over there? So, they’re empowering their workers to be more active?” And they invited the head of that to one of their conferences.
In fact, the final results are not in, but it appears like a rank-and-file worker from the BLET is going to, shockingly, upset the president of the union in the election that is just unfolding right now, which is just an — and Ross and the RWU deserve serious — and Ron, as well — deserve serious credit for this victory, if it does pan out. And it’ll be shocking, because in a union like that, it’s very difficult to even get on the ballot, if you’re not kind of in the bureaucracy, you know, one of the kind of office workers. And to have somebody rank and file become president as a result of the frustration here, it’s just extraordinarily impressive.
And somebody else I profile is a guy named Deven Mantz, who’s from North Dakota, who, when he first showed up in 2011 at the job, tried to find a contract. He’s like, so — and then, trying to find a contract, he tried to find somebody who represented the union. Took him months and months and months, because there was just such a huge gap between the people who were kind of leading — quote-unquote, “leading” the union and the actual rank and file. And it wasn’t until late 2014, 2015, when this mobilization program started, that he was able to then understand the way that he could actually become involved. And he’s one of the ones who, after 2020, when the CAT program was wound down, said, “You know what? We’re just going to do this on our own.” He ended up going to the Labor Notes Conference this summer, which had more people at it, I think, than they maybe have ever had before. He made a ton of connections there. He and Tom Modica, another rail worker from the BMWED Rank and File United, did a panel that kind of shared with everybody there what the railroaders’ issues were. And those connections really helped them build to what happened recently.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what would a short-term loss but a long-term victory look like, Ryan?
RYAN GRIM: Well, it depends on how long-term we’re talking. If they can actually get these seven sick days by executive order, then that’s almost a short-term victory. We’ll see. You know, Biden clearly doesn’t want to do it. If he wanted to do it, he could have put it in the initial tentative agreement or the initial PEB that he sent over to Congress to get voted on. But if — you know, you’ve now had more than 70 members of Congress send a letter urging Biden to do this by executive order. You’re going to have this rally today. And if this BLET election does turn out to be something that goes to the insurgent rank-and-file candidate, then you’re going to see the rest of the 11 union presidents saying, “Hey, look, President Biden, we actually really need this. Like, the workers are demanding this. And we’re all going to lose our jobs if we don’t get this right.” And that’s what you want. You want leadership running scared. You don’t want a comfortable union leadership.
So, I think, long-term, if the workers stay galvanized and they push their leadership to be more aggressive, that’s step one. Step two, which we talk about — which I talk about at the end of the story, is doable, but it requires thinking more radically and creatively. Like, a craft union strategy where you have these 12 different trade unions trying to team up every couple years to do contract negotiations is always going to lose to the united capital of these tier-one carriers. They’ve, I think — you know, the workers I talked to want to embrace an industrial strategy, where every worker who’s in a rail union joins together in the same union, and then links their struggle up with, for instance, UPS workers, and then also then collectively tries to then bring Amazon workers into their union. Like, that’s the kind of long-term industrial union win that could come out of this, but it would require a real reimagining of what power could look like for workers.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim before you go, I wanted to ask you about the Yemen War Powers Resolution that has been introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders.
RYAN GRIM: So, that’s getting voted on tonight in the Senate at 7 p.m. It would basically bar the U.S. from supporting any offensive operations in Saudi Arabia. The question of what an offensive operation was would then be left —
AMY GOODMAN: In Saudi Arabia or Yemen?
RYAN GRIM: Sorry, in Yemen, by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in Yemen. So this is an effort to kind of — to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war there. A ceasefire in Yemen expired on October 1st, but it has held to this day. And so, a strong vote, even if it’s a losing vote, but if they can show 40, 40-plus senators on the floor opposing the war, even in the midst of a ceasefire, the thinking is, from the Sanders and the antiwar camp, that that makes it much, much more difficult for Saudi Arabia to restart airstrikes, because one errant airstrike with civilians killed could then push the support from the forties well up into the fifties and could be the end of it. So, a strong showing on the floor today would be a sign to Saudi Arabia that despite Biden’s kind of genuflection to MBS for lower gas prices, that there’s still a lot of opposition to the war in Yemen here in the United States, and particularly in the halls of power.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept, also writes the newsletter, Bad News, on Substack, and we’ll link to your piece on the railroad workers’ union, as well as others, at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.