Why should social workers care about a thwarted strike by railroad workers?

On the face of it, the recent decision by Congress to prohibit a strike by railroad workers has little to do with the profession of social work. But we social workers should should look more closely; if we do, I’m convinced we’ll realize that this anti-labor rights action has serious implications for the general state of social welfare in the U.S.

I say this for three principal reasons:

  • The decision represents a “legal” curtailment of the most vital of all labor rights – the right to strike, to withhold labor when employers refuse to bargain in good faith to address worker concerns. (In the case of railroads, the legality has a long history, dating to 1926, when a series of rail strikes against industry owners prompted passage of the Railway Labor Act, permitting Congress to impose industrial settlements.) Apologists argue that the railway industry is such a critical component of the economy that disruption simply cannot be allowed. But the same argument can be readily applied to a wide range of other industries inside and outside the transportation system. Pernicious logic, indeed: the more essential your labor, the less power you have to protect it from exploitation. Though we social workers are not accustomed to thinking in these terms, the vast majority of our clients are, in fact, exploited workers.
  • In making the decision, Congress has taken clear sides in the rising class war. The railroad industry is one of the most consolidated (four freight companies control 83% of traffic) and most profitable in the nation, with an extremely “lean” workforce (there were 540,000 railway workers in 1980; today there are 130,000). Owners could easily meet the shrunken worker corps’ demands for a handful of paid sick days and a relaxation of a grueling anti-health and anti-family on-call “precision scheduling” system. They would not and will not meet those demands, however, because they loathe giving ground to the labor movement in a time of mounting worker unrest. As Warren Buffett (whose investment firm is a major railroad industry owner) famously said years ago, “There is a class war, and my class is winning.” Congress made it clear that it wants to keep it that way. It occurs to me that social workers should be equally clear that they belong on the other side of this struggle.
  • Perhaps most troubling of all is that the Congressional action was fully bi-partisan, exposing the egregious lie that workers can look to the Democratic Party (including its growing number of so-called “progressives”) to defend, let alone advance, their interests. Biden’s claim to be “a proud pro-labor president,” “the most pro-labor president since FDR” (Franklin Roosevelt) is so much bilge. His attitude toward labor is functionally the same as President Clinton’s when he shoved NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) down labor’s throat, accelerating the decline of worker wages and benefits, and organized labor itself; as he told his worried Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, “Where else are they [workers] going to go?” Social workers should find the abandonment of labor by the Democrats distressing enough all by itself; but consider further that it is this same Democratic Party that we are counting on to preserve social welfare programs, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, to SNAP, TANF, child welfare, community mental health, and all the rest, against an increasingly hostile Republican rightwing bent on slashing social welfare across the board.

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