Congress’s intervention into negotiations between rail unions and the railroad companies in order to prevent a strike has become a flashpoint for organized labor in North America. The affirming votes from democratic socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and others in “the Squad” is now a major controversy in labor/left circles—and it creates more problems for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). This should have been an easy test to pass: Support rail workers’ right to use the strike weapon and continue the fight for a fair contract, or back their bosses’ and Biden’s effort to force them to accept a bad deal. In choosing the latter, DSA “electeds” have rekindled the debate over what actions should be a line in the sand for the new socialist movement.
The Rail Dispute
Negotiations between the railroad companies (“National Carriers’ Conference”) and the rail unions (“United Rail Unions’ Coordinated Bargaining Coalition”) hit a wall in the late summer when the railroad companies refused to make any movement on the unions’ key demand: sick days.
Twelve unions represent railroad workers, who bargain together for one agreement with the rail companies. The rails are governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), not the National Labor Relations Act that private sector workers generally fall under. The RLA gives the President and Congress powers to intervene directly in the negotiations and ultimately decide on labor agreements in rail and air traffic.
In July, the companies refused to move on sick days (railroaders get zero sick days currently) and the negotiations started to break down. President Biden used his power under the RLA to force a 60-day “cooling off period” before the dispute escalated, creating the potential for a strike. Biden then assembled a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to mediate and make a recommendation to the negotiating parties. That process did not end with any additional sick days. The Teamsters, to whom the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) are affiliated, issued a statement celebrating the intervention of Biden and the PEB. (Historically, the position of labor is against state intervention in contract negotiations.)
After another cooling off period, the unions began voting on the contract in November. The unions vote separately. Two of the larger unions were the last to vote earlier last week, resulting in four unions voting down the deal, and ultimately the majority of rank-and-file workers did not accept it.
On Monday, November 28, Biden announced that he was asking Congress to force the rail unions to accept the deal through legislation this week, in order to avert a strike. Simply put, Biden sided with the rail companies. Any further collective bargaining would be off the table, and of course if workers struck they would now do so illegally.
Democrats, The Squad, and DSA
A socialist position is that it is a basic human right to withhold your labor, to strike. Any law that infringes upon that right should be opposed. Any socialist politician should be expected to observe this principle.
In this regard, DSA issued a pretty good statement:
“Any member of Congress who votes yes on the tentative agreement is siding with billionaires and forcing a contract on rail workers that does not address their most pressing demand of paid sick days. Democrats claim to want to save democracy. There’s nothing more democratic than workers having a say over their own lives. By refusing to side with workers and respect their vote to reject a bad deal, the Democrats will create an opportunity for the Right to fill that void with false promises and further drive working people from politics during particularly crucial moments.”
But within hours of DSA issuing the statement, every DSA elected in the House (save Rashida Tlaib) voted in favor of imposing the contract; they did exactly what DSA was denouncing. They had a rationale of course: The Congressional Progressive Caucus had a separate bill that would legislate seven sick days (fewer than the 15 sick days rail workers demanded), so they claimed they had to vote in favor of forcing the agreement to then get the amendment considered. Two separate bills, one forcing the contract on the unions and the other legislating sick days, were sent to the Senate.
AOC’s justification for her vote was that she was following the wishes of the unions. Considering that the majority of union members had just voted against the contract, this meant that she sided with union leadership who wanted to avoid further negotiations and a strike.
Joe Burns, author of Class Struggle Unionism and Reviving the Strike, called bullshit on the maneuver:
“If the national Democrats truly wanted the railroad workers to have sick leave, why would they not have put it into one bill with the anti-strike legislation? The answer is clear, because they wanted the path to be clear for the Senate to block the strike but not approve the sick leave. Having separate bills would mean the anti-strike legislation would still go through.”
If you truly believed in getting sick leave for workers, wouldn’t you put it in the same legislation?
Separating the bills was the same shell game they played with Build Back Better: separating reforms progressives wanted from the base bill to give the appearance of movement but ensuring that they failed.
On Thursday, the Senate then voted 80-15 to impose the contract (10 of those voting against were Republicans), and 52-43 for the sick days—which failed, requiring a three-fifths majority. Biden signed the strike-breaker bill into law on December 2, with no added sick leave.
DSA’s Rail Problem
This creates a problem for DSA. It isn’t a crisis for the organization, because the root issue, the role of socialist elected officials and their relationship to the organization, had already been played out and resolved with the Bowman Affair last year.
The stakes of that debate were about whether elected officials had any expectation of upholding the organization’s positions, and whether they were free agents or representatives of DSA. It caused a general organizational crisis that was only resolved by the National Political Committee rejecting any consequences for Bowman without discussion and, instead, disciplining the BDS Working Group.
Elected officials, like Jabari Brisport, Tiffany Caban, and AOC intervened, signing petitions against discipline for Bowman or lobbying DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) directly. The question was explicitly posed, “Do Comrades Cross Picket Lines?” Defenders of Bowman said of course it would be unacceptable to cross workers, but one year later they are unconditionally defending “their” electeds. Following the Bowman Affair, the NPC promised greater accountability with a “Socialists in Office” committee, but after this vote, it’s plainly a Potemkin village.
The result of the Bowman crisis was that there was no accountability for the “electeds.” The membership instead was punished, the NPC became wildly dysfunctional, and the organization lost the confidence of many members. There is not a 1:1 correlation, but in one year DSA has lost 12,000 members. Whatever the official positions decided by the 2021 Convention, the policy is unconditional support for Democrats.
The rail dispute is the continuation of this logic in DSA. This should have led to a full-blown crisis, and though there is some worthy discontent, there’s not much expectation that the NPC will do anything. Some chapters and organizations are explicitly distancing themselves from these “democratic socialist electeds” for voting to break a strike. But there’s no halfway between unconditional support of a politician and enforcing basic expectations. Sticking with the politicians, who in turn followed Biden, means that DSA presents no alternative to this move by the Democrats, and the only real dissent comes from the far right.
The actual problem for DSA National is that the leadership is faced with the dilemma of having taken a (good) position that was directly contradicted by politicians they’ve tied themselves to.
There are three possible ways they could respond:
- Do nothing and pretend they never said anything that might embarrass “their” electeds.
- Try to save face with the politicians and release something saying they’re disappointed but ultimately support the Squad, or try to reframe the issue and say that the DSA politicians aren’t the problem here—basically, they’d roll back their earlier statement.
- Point out that AOC, Bowman, Omar, Bush et al. scabbed on the unions, and pursue some genuine consequences to rectify the issue. They could even get crazy and include some organizational censure or discipline.
The first position would have been ambiguous about DSA’s position towards the electeds. The second would appease the politicians who they may have offended by drawing a line on strikebreaking. The third would hold the position and take it to its logical conclusion.
Their approach? #2.
“We are proud of DSA member Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s vote against the TA and for sick days. Any vote by Congress to impose a bad contract on workers sides with the boss, and contradicts democratic socialist values. We disagree and are disappointed with the decision of DSA members Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Cori Bush to needlessly vote to enforce the TA.”
The new statement reaffirms the value of the Squad and diminishes votes for strikebreaking to disagreements. This is to say, there will be no consequences.
The remaining question for the Left is whether support for DSA, however critical, is also unconditional. If not, then which conditions are tolerable and which have gone too far? Organizations come and go. It’s really worth asking whether those who remain are throwing good money after bad.
Featured image credit: Photo by Revise-D via Flikr; modified by Tempest.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at email@example.com. And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:Donate
Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint, Jacobin, and In These Times .