Rank-and-File Railworkers Are Calling for Public Ownership of the Railroads

Fed up with rail companies putting profits before workers and surrounding communities, the rank-and-file group Railroad Workers United is launching a campaign for railroad nationalization. We spoke with one of their leaders about the proposal.

A Union Pacific freight train passes the railroad crossing in Nipton, California, on Aug. 30, 2019. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Just months after a high-profile contract fight between rail unions and railroads ended with Congress imposing a contract on workers, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The environmental and health disaster — exacerbated by the federal government’s lackadaisical response — has laid bare the safety practices of rail carriers.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers spanning all thirteen national rail unions, has responded to the East Palestine derailment by calling for public ownership of the railroads. According to RWU, the railways cannot be run safely or efficiently so long as they are operated in the pursuit of profit at all costs.

Jacobin spoke with one of the cochairs of RWU, Ross Grooters, about why the group is pushing for railroad nationalization and their efforts to organize with other workers along the supply chain.

Nick French

What’s the role of your group, Railroad Workers United, in relation to the various rail unions?

Ross Grooters

Railroad Workers United was founded in 2008 upon the idea that the individual craft union system is antiquated and that we need one industrial union. We need to bring all these separate workers together under one umbrella. We’re all working for the same employers and fighting the same things industry-wide.

More recently, a big development is that we made the decision to pass a resolution in support of public ownership, or nationalization, of the railroads. We’re working on organizing and finding a path to a mass movement or campaign for taking public ownership of the railroads, because it’s clear at this point that they will never be operated in the best interest of the nation, or operated as the critical transportation infrastructure that they are.

Nick French

What’s the history of RWU’s demand for nationalization or public ownership?

Ross Grooters

We came out with the nationalization demand late last year around the contract fight. It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time, we just hadn’t thought there was the right timing or support that would be broad-based and get traction. We debated it many times over the years, including at our conventions. Generally, everybody was like, “Yeah, this is a good idea.”

It became really clear between the contract negotiations and the fact that the railroad companies are making obscene amounts of money operating the railroads purely for the purpose of extracting wealth from what should be critical infrastructure, that the only way for rail to work would be outside the for-profit model that it exists in currently. So we decided to pass that resolution.

Nick French

How does the nationalization demand speak to the East Palestine, Ohio disaster and other derailments? Do you imagine public ownership preventing incidents like those?

Ross Grooters

One of the reasons this came about when it did is we’ve had precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, for a number of years. It is essentially the financialization of the railroads. It is cutting things to the bone and running a skeleton operation that is going to fail. Workers are going to be tired, and the railroad will fail because they’re operating on such a thin margin.

That is one of the main reasons we support public ownership in the industry, because we know that rail carriers are going to continue to extract this wealth from the railroads and not invest in things like the safety and infrastructure that they need. Just like interstate highways and airports and ports — these are things operated publicly for the public good.

We need to make the rail system expand and meet the needs of shippers and communities and passengers. It’s time we focus on taking back that ownership, because railroads are sacrificing safety for profits. It’s a very deliberate calculation.

Nick French

RWU did a lot of organizing around last year’s contract negotiations and the possibility of a strike. Do you see the momentum from that organizing potentially being channeled into fighting for this nationalization demand?

Ross Grooters

That’s certainly a consideration. Eyes were on rail labor in a way that they hadn’t been, at least in the twenty years that I’ve worked on the railroad. People were talking about rail issues, and there was an increased focus on us as workers. So we were able to step out and say, “Yes, and…,” and that “and” piece was the public ownership portion.

The demand had to come from the rank and file. Again, the thirteen national rail unions need to come under an umbrella and get more united; I don’t know that they’re ready to step outside of the way they’ve operated traditionally and support this.

But it’s not a new idea. It’s something that extends clear back to World War I, when the freight railroads were briefly nationalized because the rail carriers couldn’t do the job they needed to do to support the war effort. So the government had to intervene. Unfortunately, it then got brought back under the control of private interests.

The contract negotiations put our issues on the radar; it allowed us to have a platform to raise this issue and get a critical look at it, rather than just being dismissed. There were a lot of people that looked at it and said, “Yes, this makes sense.”

Just as important as the contract to elevating our visibility was the supply chain issues that we’ve been having. Through COVID certainly, but even beyond COVID — supply chain issues that are happening on the railroad are happening as much due to PSR. They’re not going to get better even assuming COVID is resolved.

The railroads’ relationship to operations is not going to improve as long as the sole motivation of these companies is maximizing shareholder value. “How much stock can we buy back? How much can our dividend checks grow? How much can we improve our operating ratio?” That is the way the industry has been operated, and as long as it is, the supply chain will suffer. So I think that has a lot to do with the momentum we’re starting to see around public ownership.

Nick French

You mentioned COVID. Did the pandemic change things much for rail in terms of safety or how much the railroads were cutting corners? Or are the issues basically continuous from before COVID?

Ross Grooters

I would say that the issues stem back to precision scheduled railroading. COVID slowed rail operations because the economy slowed. But by and large, as railroad workers, we were continuing to go to work every day. It wasn’t like a lot of other jobs, where you were either working from home or furloughed or laid off. There was pretty much continuous work.

The big thing that COVID did, which I would argue is an extension of PSR, was to deregulate the railroads. Once COVID hit, the Association of American Railroads was ready to go with blanket deregulation. Huge deregulatory reforms were passed almost immediately when the lockdown started to ensure that it was sold as, “We need to have this rollback of rules and laws to continue operating the railroads during this pandemic.”

It’s suspect whether that was already preconceived or whether railroads were just reacting to the crisis of the moment and taking advantage of it. Those regulatory rollbacks were pretty broad, and the railroads were quickly ready to go with them. That’s not uncommon for railroads: they often get exemptions on regulations during weather events, like hurricanes or flooding.

Unfortunately, in the last half decade or so, the new regulations have been extensive and have made the operating model of PSR work. All the changes and cuts that they’ve made, the fifty thousand people in the industry that have disappeared — regulatory rollbacks were required to help facilitate that.

Nick French

I think it’s fair to say neither Democrats nor Republicans are friends of railworkers or workers in general. And I don’t think either party is especially open to any kind of demand for nationalization at the moment. So what’s the strategy for building support for this and pushing it through?

Ross Grooters

These are excellent questions and have perhaps yet to be answered. This is something that’s ongoing. The steering committee of RWU is continuing to look at what our path forward is and building a campaign and a strategy. But the broader vision of it is, it’s got to be movement based. Similar to any other issue, like climate justice or anything else, we’re going to have to go out and build coalitions, we’re going to have to go out and bring people on board.

We’ve started to see people coming out in support, whether it be members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or even some of the other unions — UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) comes to mind. They have a diesel shop in Erie, Pennsylvania — so they have a connection to the railroad, building locomotives — and they’ve come out in support of nationalization. We’ve seen the president of the APWU, the American Postal Workers Union, voice support for public ownership.

It’s a matter of building that movement, and then also, we need to find partners, probably in nonprofits, or people who have a little bit more knowledge. We’re working railroaders; we’re not wonks who can come up with policy language. For this idea to manifest, it’s got to become policy. So we need to work with people to share our knowledge and help develop that.

It’s a slow process of organizing, just like we would have in our unions, only we’re going far outside of that. One of the things we’ve done over the years, and are continuing to try to do better, is organize within environmental groups — groups like Labor Network for Sustainability and other organizations that work on labor and environmental issues. There’s a shared interest among environmentalists and railroad workers: we all want to have healthy communities, we all want to keep the nation and the world safe. Freight railroad is a way to do that. It’s much more efficient and environmentally friendly than, say, trucking over the road.

Nick French

On that note: in terms of large-scale proposals on the Left for imagining a bigger role for public ownership and public management of the economy, the Green New Deal is the most prominent proposal that’s had airtime in recent years. Do you or RWU see nationalization of the railroads as part of that Green New Deal vision?

Ross Grooters

My personal opinion is that they overlap, and I would be thrilled if the Green New Deal could incorporate public ownership of the rails. It’s a critical component of the environmental movement in transportation. When we talk about how we’re going to move this campaign for public ownership forward, we’re definitely looking at groups that have popularized the Green New Deal. There’s a lot to learn from the people who have done that organizing.

Nick French

Do you see this fight as connected with other struggles that are ongoing in logistics and transportation broadly? There’s the big UPS [United Parcel Service] contract fight getting underway. There’s also the ongoing effort to organize Amazon, and some on the Left have floated the idea of nationalizing Amazon. How does RWU’s fight fit into that broader landscape?

Ross Grooters

It certainly does. UPS workers are Teamsters, and there’s two rail unions in the Teamsters Rail Conference. So there’s overlap between those two fights.

Everything we’re talking about here are things that are on the supply chain. Everyone in this country is on this supply chain. They might be at the last point, which is the point of purchase — you’re buying something, you’re on that supply chain. It’s something that I may have moved or a UPS worker may have moved; it may have been stored in an Amazon warehouse.

All these things are connected and work together, and certainly workers in those different industries on the supply chain can find ways to support each other, to learn from each other, and to fight for improving their workplaces.

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