By ERNIE GOTTA

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Ways Employees (BMWE), a railroad division of the Teamsters, has threatened to strike Union Pacific (UP) over COVID-19 and safety conditions on the job.

BMWE, which represents 8000 members, has stated that hundreds have contracted the virus at work, dozens have been hospitalized, and two members have died. The union issued a letter to UP on Dec. 17 with the following demands: 

  • Continuation of pay, which would encourage employees to be tested for contracting the coronavirus, since they would not feel compelled to go to work because of fear of losing their earnings.
  • Access to testing on the job site and on company time.
  • Temperature testing prior to work shifts.
  • Contact tracing following an exposure at work.
  • Daily access to personal protective equipment such as facemasks and hand cleaners, as well as adequate sanitation supplies in group areas and for machines and locomotives.
  • Social distancing requirements in public-use areas.

UP covers more than 32,000 miles of track and ships billions of dollars in freight. Like other railroad companies, UP has received substantial sums of ederal bailout money. Instead of using that bailout money to implement the workers’ demands, UP immediately sought a court injunction to halt any workplace actions over COVID safety.

The union wrote in a Christmas Eve message to members on Facebook, “In the lawsuit over Union Pacific’s Covid-19 protocols, the Judge granted Union Pacific’s motion for a temporary restraining order barring BMWED members from withdrawing from service in response to Union Pacific’s Covid-19 policies. This restraining order will be in effect through January 8, 2021. The Judge scheduled a hearing on Union Pacific’s motion for a preliminary injunction for January 5, 2021.”

BMWE’s message continued, “Under the judge’s order, BMWED and its officers, staff and agents may not direct, call, instigate, encourage or engage in any strike, self-help, sickout, concerted refusal to bid, slowdown, work stoppage, refusal to work, job action, picketing, or refusal to cross a picket line at or against Union Pacific, or any acts to support such actions. The hearing set for January 5 will determine whether this order or any like order will continue past January 8.”

BMWE finds itself in a difficult situation. A strike would now mean breaking the court’s restraining order, resulting in a hefty lawsuit, and tying up the union’s resources in legal proceedings for the foreseeable future. Not striking means conditions stay the same and workers will continue to risk their lives. What can workers do in this situation?

The capitalist courts exist to maintain the legal rights of the employer. Rarely do the courts side with workers, and breaking an injunction is serious business. Historically, because of their centrality to production and capitalist profits, railroad workers have had to take bold actions by defying the courts and the politicians, and by taking on the police and National Guard in the process.

Wildcat strikes that resist court injunctions, like the Pullman strike in 1894 led by Eugene Debs, require that the union rally to their side all the support of organized labor and broader layers of society. To the degree that the Pullman strike was successful, solidarity strikes, boycotts, and massive fundraising were necessary across the country.

Today, the union seems intent on waiting for a decision from the courts on the legality of a possible strike. It is likely the courts will rule that BMWE has to first negotiate in good faith with UP and that a strike would unduly damage the profitability of the company. All of these measures taken by the company will weaken the workers’ hands at the bargaining table. Negotiations that are taken without the power to strike destroy the workers ability to force concessions from the company.

The pandemic has raised the stakes of workplace actions. Employers everywhere have been extremely vigilant in thwarting attempts by workers to secure a greater piece of the federal bailout money in the form of safer work conditions and economic security. A successful fight by BMWE against UP for COVID-19 safety conditions would set an example for workers struggling everywhere who are desperately seeking relief.

Illustration by General Strike Graphics.