Rail Workers United: Nationalize the rail industry!

Devotees of capitalism often cite “competition” as the force that both keeps anyone from gaining too much power, and that drives innovation. I have my disagreements with that perspective, but even if I were to accept it as fact, it wouldn’t apply to railroads. I’m not the first to point this out, but competition doesn’t work for railroads. It’s a natural monopoly. This means that the corporations who have taken ownership of the rail industry have a huge amount of power (especially with the government taking away their workers’ right to strike), which they’ve mostly used to maximize profits and avoid regulations and responsibility.

The solution is to nationalize the rail industry. Ideally that would be part of a larger investment in rail infrastructure for both passengers and freight, but even without that, the rails should be operated as a public utility, subject to democratic control, not by corporations who’re happy to kill people for money. I’m not alone in thinking this, and it’s not an opinion that’s limited to literary softies like me – Rail Workers United has called for nationalization in the wake of the recent Norfolk Southern train derailment:

Dear Friends and Fellow Workers:

In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, and after more than
a decade of discussion and debate on the question, Railroad Workers United (RWU)
has taken a position in support of public ownership of the rail system in the United
States. (see Resolution attached). We ask you to consider doing the same, and
announce your organization’s support for rail public ownership.

While the rail industry has been incapable of expansion in the last generation and has
become more and more fixated on the Operating Ratio to the detriment of all other
metrics of success, Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has escalated this
irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters,
trackside communities, and workers. On-time performance is suffering, and shipper
complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter
services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger
train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated,
consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where
workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure
maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at
an all-time low. The debacle in national contract bargaining last Fall saw the carriers –
after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios – refusing to make
even the slightest concessions to the workers who have made them their riches.

Since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the
job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure – like the other transport
modes – to be brought under public ownership. During WWI, the railroads in the U.S.
were in fact temporarily placed under public ownership and control. All rail workers of
all crafts and unions supported (unsuccessfully) keeping them in public hands once
the war ended, and voted overwhelmingly to keep them in public hands. Perhaps it is
time once again to put an end to the profiteering, pillaging, and irresponsibility of the
Class One carriers. Railroad workers are in a historic position to take the lead and
push for a new fresh beginning for a vibrant and expanding, innovative and creative
national rail industry to properly handle the nation’s freight and passengers.

Please join us in this historic endeavor. See the adjoining RWU Resolution in Support
of Public Ownership of the Railroads, along with a sample Statement from the United
Electrical (UE). If your organization would like to take a stand for public ownership of
the nation’s rail system, please fill out the attached form and email it in to RWU. We
will add your organization to the list. Finally, please forward this letter to others who
may be interested in doing the same. Thank you!

In solidarity,

The RWU Committee on Public Ownership

Damned straight. This is far from the first time that the corporate leaders of an industry have proven themselves incapable of handling the responsibilities given them, and while I don’t favor nationalization for everything, public ownership is the clear option for the rails. The resolution itself is the most whereas-laden document I’ve read in a while, but it also paints a somewhat tragic history of past efforts to claw this public good from the clutches of capitalists:

Whereas rail infrastructure the world over is held publicly, as are the roads,
bridges, canals, harbors, airports, and other transportation infrastructure; and

Whereas numerous examples of rail infrastructure held publicly have operated
successfully across North America for decades, usually in the form of local/
regional commuter operations and state-owned freight trackage; and

Whereas, due to their inability to effectively move the nation’s freight and
passengers during WWI, the U.S. government effectively nationalized the
private rail infrastructure in the U.S. for 26 months; and

Whereas, at that time it was agreed by shippers, passengers, and rail workers
that the railroads were operated far more effectively and efficiently during that
time span; and

Whereas every rail union at that time supported continued public ownership
(the “Plumb Plan”) once the war had ended; and

Whereas, specifically, when the rank & file rail workers were polled by their
unions in December 1918, the combined totals were 306,720 in favor of
continued nationalization with just 1,466 in favor of a return to private
ownership; and

Whereas the entire labor movement at that time was in favor of basic industry
being removed from private hands, with the delegates to the 1920 AFL
Convention voting 29,159 to 8,349 in favor, overruling the officialdom of the
AFL and its conservative position; and

And then they go into the current situation, including the way rail companies fight against improvements of all sorts. It feels like brake systems designed in the 1860s are less the exception than they are the rule. Looking at the world today, I think it’s arguable that we never really left the age of the robber barons – they just got better at obscuring who they are and what they do.

I support nationalizing the rails, and more than that, I think we should immediately invest a huge amount of money in upgrading and expanding rail infrastructure in the United States. I know that the current urban/suburban sprawl of some regions make some people think that rail can’t work in that country, but I think that creating a real, reliable rail network would encourage communities and businesses to congregate around stations and hubs. Hell, we could even invest in helping people move, and reclaim a lot of that sprawl for rewilding

I don’t know how likely this effort is to succeed, but I think that its best chance of success is for there to be a public movement in support of nationalization that extends far beyond rail workers. Solidarity means building all of our collective power, and pushing forward on all fronts where we find ourselves able to do so. The people, united, are a slime mold.

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