I’ve Been Striking on the Railroad

By Karyn Pomerantz, 11-20-2022

UPDATE: US workers just rejected the contract offer. 11-21-2022

There’s an old song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” that goes like this:

I’ve been working on the railroad

All the live-long day.

I’ve been working on the railroad

Just to pass the time away.

Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, rise up so early in the morn…

Written in 1894, this famous song depicts the back-breaking work of railroad workers. Built in the 19th Century, largely by black and Chinese workers, the railway system played an integral part in building capitalism in the United States, carrying oil, steel, and other critical products to western markets. The “robber baron” industrialists, such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, made a killing in these industries by cheating and violently attacking workers to create massive wealth.

Today, railroad workers are on the rise. This article will describe potential, current, and previous railway strikes. Because these militant multiracial actions disrupt business, they can improve the lives of workers much more substantially than any electoral strategies. Mass struggles teach us how to work together, identify our enemies and allies, and how to make changes.

            British Railway Workers Strike, Summer – Fall, 2022


Largely due to the war in Ukraine, scarcities and prices of food and fuel have soared. Britain’s overall inflation rate stands at 11.1% with food price inflation at 16.4%. European and Ukrainian residents are preparing to endure freezing winters without the energy needed to warm their homes. Workers in Spain, France, England, and Germany have staged massive demonstrations against the rising costs of survival.

            Meanwhile, British railway workers in various unions, including the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), stopped work this summer and threaten to strike on November 26, 2022. In late June, 40,000 rail workers went on strike closing operations in 80% of the rail system. They demand a 7% wage increase, no cuts in safety jobs, pension benefits, and no increases in working hours.

            The rail industry responded with a paltry 2% wage increase and a refusal to fulfill other demands, citing a need to modernize because of decreased ridership. Again, it is transport workers who bear the burden of the bosses’ problems.  Not surprisingly, government leaders lined up behind the railroad industry, initiating legislation to curtail disruptive strikes. Labor Party representatives joined their conservative colleagues in denouncing the strikes as well, so much for the idea that a social democratic party would solve labor problems. The new US Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, also condemned a possible US RR strike (more below).

            While, the British workers may not win all their demands, their organizing demonstrates the power of workers in major industries to pressure employers for reforms and to build solidarity across unions.

US Railroad Workers Threaten to Strike, Fall 2022

Meanwhile, 110,000 US freight railroad workers, including conductors, signal people, and boilermakers are negotiating about inflexible schedules, exhausting working conditions, and no sick leave. The bosses treat them as disposable pawns, demanding that they report to work whenever summoned or suffer penalties, including termination. To reduce labor costs by running with fewer people, the companies implemented a system, Precision Scheduling Railroading (PSR), where workers sign up for a schedule after completing their last trip. With fewer workers, they are likely to be called for another trip without any advance notice. Railroad companies also reduced the number of workers on many trains, from two people to only one person.

With more speed up, less staffing, and irregular schedules, workers report unhealthy, family unfriendly lives. To add fuel to the fire, the companies provide NO sick leave, zilch, even during Covid.

“It would not harm their operations to treat employees like humans and let them take care of medical issues,” Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the two unions, said in an interview on Monday. “It’s the primary outstanding issue, one we won’t budge on — the request that they stop firing people who get sick (Railroad Workers Point to Punishing Schedules as Cause of Strike – The New York Times. nytimes.com).”

The freight railroad industry makes the highest profit margin of all industries in the US, over 50% of their revenue is profit, according to Bloomberg News. As another union leader explained:

“They have the money to do it, and it literally would cost them a penny of every dollar of record profits to provide it. It’s only 2% of what CSX, NS and UP spent so far this year in stock buybacks. It’s literally nothing to them, yet they refuse to provide it (A third railroad union rejects proposed contract, further raising the odds of a strike | CNN Business).”

At this point, November 20, 2022, the union has offered a 14% raise with back pay from 2020. The pay raises amount to 24% with additional annual cash bonuses of $1,000 over the course of the contract’s four years. Yet, even with these unusually high bribes, the unions have said they would not accept the offer without including five sick days. They threaten to strike in early December.

As in Britain, government representatives are lining up behind industry, terrified that this strike would seriously damage supply chains, consumer spending, and profits. Congress has the power to declare a strike illegal, an expected result that will damage the Democratic Party’s image as a friend of labor.

It is unlikely that the unions will organize an illegal strike. During the 1950s, the government kicked out and imprisoned Communist Party union organizers. Today, union officials earn salaries closer to those of company CEOs and limit militant actions. In the recent Metro Access driver strike in Maryland, the union only mobilized a small portion of the workforce and negotiated away a larger wage increase as hundreds of workers and supporters walked picket lines for two weeks. Railroad workers today would need to walk out illegally –wildcat – and risk imprisonment and severe fines.         

The public needs to support a strike if it occurs, joining it with walkouts, donations, rallies, and participation on the picket lines. While a strike will disrupt the delivery of products and increase prices, it can win critical concessions from the bosses. We should not be satisfied when any of our working-class families risk their health to increase the wealth of any corporate thug. 

Previous RR Workers Strikes

Indian Workers, 2020

In 2020, 250 million workers in India, led by the RR unions, struck over food allocations, pensions, privatization of public assets, income, jobs, anti-union rules, and deadly Covid policies. Joined by bus drivers, oil workers, public health workers, and bank unions among many others, they shut down eight Indian states. Bus operators were especially important in stopping business as usual.

The enormous march of Indian farmers to Delhi followed to protest agricultural policies that saw thousands of farmers committing suicide.

This strike showed the enormous anger against the Modi government. It brought agricultural and industrial workers together throughout the country. However, the strike only lasted two days, and the government suppressed news of the farmers’ revolt.

US RR Strike of 1877

The history of the railroads in the United States represents the most brutal racist and exploitative nature of capitalism. RR companies owned huge swaths of land to develop. They hired Chinese workers to cut through mountains in western states, killing thousands. Black convict laborers, leased to the companies for free, laid down the tracks. The wealth of the RR and oil magnates grew as their workers suffered poverty and abusive conditions.

            In 1877 after four years of recession when the RR bosses cut wages again by 10%, railroad workers erupted in strikes. Without a national organization, strikes spread to 16 of the 38 states, exploding into violent attacks on company property. In Pittsburgh, a hotbed of strikes, the militia joined the workers forcing the government to call in the Philadelphia militia. Over 4000 armed workers from other jobs joined the struggle:

“…This army included white workers, Black workers, and workers from dozens of countries. They were young and old, men and women. They trapped the Philadelphia troops in the locomotive roundhouse and held them there all night. Then by setting the building on fire, they smoked them out and ran them 20 miles out of the city. For four days afterwards, the working class fought the bosses, controlling many parts of the city. They took over the telegraph station and ran passenger and mail trains. They destroyed over 100 locomotives, about 50 passenger cars and over 1,200 freight cars. They ransacked gun shops and a gun factory for weapons. Eventually, the U.S. government sent over 10,000 state and federal troops to regain control of the city (Progressive Labor Party, https://www.plp.org/challenge/2021/8/8/the-pittsburgh-commune-of-july-1877.html).”

            The strike won some reforms, including a pension plan, but did not resolve the poor working conditions and pay. It did galvanize other workers to organize and strike, culminating in the successful fight for the eight-hour day. It demonstrated the power of mass violence, solidarity with the militia, and the importance of multiracial militancy.

What We Can Learn

In summary, these struggles teach us many lessons:

  • The state – the government and its police – side with the capitalists. It is not a neutral buffer between workers and industry. Voting does not alter this fundamental role.
  • Workers have the most power when they organize at the point of production, their workplaces, especially those workers with the most potential to disrupt the economy. These actions make electoral politics look even more trivial and useless.
  • Solidarity across unions, “race,” ethnicity, countries, religions increase the power and strength of strikes.
  • Workers must organize actions without depending on union leaders or politicians to help them, and follow the example of the rebels in 1877.
  • Capitalism is inherently exploitative, generating profits off the unpaid labor of workers no matter what they earn. Replacing it with a worker run society can eliminate the legacy of racism and poverty that persists with other horrors today.

What We Can Do

  • Walk the picket lines
  • Donate to strike funds
  • Organize a union in your workplace
  • Inform friends about these issues
  • Read our blog, multiracialunity.org
  • Join our discussion group, Prepare2Resist, learn about organizing against capitalism and racism.

Selected readings:

British strikes



Potential US strike




Past RR actions

India, 2020



US, 1877



2 thoughts on “I’ve Been Striking on the Railroad”

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