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The Congressional Vote to Quash the Rail Strike Shows That We Need a Party of Our Own

The congressional intervention to bust a possible railroad strike with the complicity of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was a blow to the labor movement as a whole and a wake-up call for the socialist Left in America. Indignation and denunciation are not enough. It is fundamental to break with the Democratic Party and build a party of the working class and for the working class that genuinely fights for socialism.

Jimena Vergara

December 22, 2022
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Protesters holding signs supporting rail workers
SUZANNE KREITER / THE BOSTON GLOBE

Last summer, negotiations between the railroad companies and the railroad unions stalled due to the intransigence of the employers who refused to grant sick days as part of contract bargaining. The railroads are governed by the Railway Labor Act rather than the National Labor Relations Act, which empowers Congress to intervene in negotiations in the event of an impasse. 

In July President Joe Biden, at the express request of the railroad companies and the bosses, created through Executive Order a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to intervene in the negotiations. As the impasse between rail workers and the bosses continued, the PEB took matters into its own hands: In late November, in a clear effort to avoid a strike in the midst of a struggling economy, it “recommended” that the disputing parties negotiate on terms that were not those at first decided by workers. 

The absence of paid sick days, a key demand from workers, stood out. The traditional bureaucracy, including the leadership of the Teamsters, to which two of the railroad unions are affiliated — the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — applauded the president’s intervention. 

Of the twelve unions involved in the negotiations, four of them, representing the majority of railroad workers, voted against the PEB’s proposal for a new contract. On Monday, November 28, Biden called on Congress to enforce the tentative agreement, leading the charge against rail workers. 

It is clear that Biden’s actions and those of the congress were in line with the interests of the members of the bourgeois class that own the railroads. Congress averted a railroad strike that could have caused millions in losses for the capitalists, destabilized the still weakened supply chains, and made rail workers the subject of holiday dinner conversations. 

As we already know, the initiative also had the support of most of the so-called socialist DSA candidates in Congress. The votes of the DSA representatives has sparked outrage not only on the Left, but among the DSA’s own rank and file, and among a whole generation of young people who since Striketober last year have been diligently engaged in union organizing and militant actions against racism and discrimination in their workplaces, from Starbucks to Amazon. 

The votes by AOC, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and company were not the products of individual error or a lapse in judgment, but the result of class-collaborationist politics. It is impossible to keep politicians accountable who are the left wing of a capitalist party like the Democratic Party. The Democrats are accountable to the bosses, such as Warren Buffet, who is one of the super rich donors to the Democratic Party and who has billions of shares in railroads. 

The way forward to win more unions, sick pay, better wages, and so on is to build a militant labor movement. But it is impossible to do this if we are politically subordinated to the Democratic Party. We need an independent working class organization whose central orientation is the development of class struggle from the workplaces, putting forward strikes and militant actions. A working class party focused on class struggle should fight for those demands, not in the halls of Congress, but by using its platform to support the fight in the streets and in the workplaces.

If we had genuine working class representatives in Congress, they would not only have voted against Biden’s initiative but would have agitated the need for a railroad strike from the floor. Such actions — those that build and support working class power, not undermine it — can’t be done by being the left wing of one of the two big parties that rule for the bosses; that way will always be limited to negotiating crumbs for the working class. 

There is No Socialist Argument to Justify the Unjustifiable 

DSA congresspeople have tried to justify the vote as any bourgeois politician would. At the end of the day, it’s all about maneuvering and backroom negotiations behind the backs of the workers. 

It would never occur to these “socialist” candidates that instead of stopping a strike, their job was in fact to use their place in Congress to explain to millions of people the rightness and importance of a railroad strike. It would never occur to these “socialist” candidates that they should have used their visibility to support the railroad workers and show that it is worthwhile to strike and fight with working class methods not only for better wages but beyond. Our perspective is for the working class to connect the struggle for better conditions with the struggle for a socialist future. 

Some sectors of the Left are holding up the examples of Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders as members of Congress who stayed true to the workers by voting against a contract that did not include sick days. But they are also complicit in the Democratic Party’s maneuver to rip from the hands of workers the right to fight for their demands. Sanders may not have voted for the bill that made it to the Senate, but he was behind the scenes negotiating a deal behind the backs of rank-and-file workers, making concession after concession to the right wing of the Democratic Party and the capitalists. And with their continued allegiance to the capitalist Democratic Party, both Tlaib and Sanders are merely providing left cover for a regime that seeks to maintain a social order that works in favor of the rich and powerful.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus had a separate bill that would have added seven sick days to the deal with the rail unions, and so DSA representatives negotiated with the Democratic Party to vote yes on Biden’s initiative to bring this amendment to the Senate floor. Two separate bills were sent to the Senate. 

The one imposing the contract on railroad unions without sick days was approved, the one legislating sick days was not. Were they actually expecting a different outcome? Joe Burns, author of Class Struggle Unionism put it this way on twitter: 

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.

And as Andy Sernatinger from Tempest magazine rightly explained: 

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.

In response to the vote, DSA rank and file and some internal caucuses, have demanded the expulsion of the representatives who voted with Biden. This is not the first time that DSA representatives have voted against the expectations of the organization’s rank and file. 

Earlier this year, Jamaal Bowman’s vote for the Iron Dome and in favor of the millionaire budget that the United States gives year after year to the Zionist state of Israel, generated an internal tremor in the organization. Attempts to sanction Bowman were quickly quashed by the organization’s leadership and right wing caucuses. This experience, as well as the latest debacle over the railroad contract, is causing many DSA rank-and-file activists to question whether there can be democratic procedures to hold elected candidates accountable. 

Of course elected candidates of a working class party genuinely fighting for socialism must be accountable to the rank and file of their organization, but the problem is more fundamental. 

What is in crisis is DSA leadership’s strategy of accumulating socialist candidates within the Democratic Party to pressure the party to turn left. What is in crisis is the strategy of raising expectations that Biden would be a reformist president, that the working class would therefore be able to win fundamental reforms during his term, and that the organizations of the working class and the social movements should collaborate with his administration as Bernie Sanders and the Squad have done so far. 

No significant reforms have been passed during the Biden administration. On the contrary, we lost federal abortion rights, police departments received million-dollar budgets in blue states, children who cross the border continue to be separated from their parents, the rights of trans people have been trampled in dozens of states, no pro-labor legislation has been passed (not even the limited PRO Act), and union busting continues apace, particularly at newly organized workplaces such as Amazon and Starbucks.

What significant difference has the “socialist caucus” in the congress made so far? None. On the contrary, their endorsement of the imperialist policy of unconditional alliance with the Zionist state of Israel, and now their endorsement of crushing the railroad strike, only further tarnish the role of socialists before the working class.

The energy of the new labor movement, including many of the DSA rank and file, which was expressed at the last Labor Notes conference attended by 4,000 activists, cannot be allowed to dissipate in demoralization and defeat. On the contrary, this energy must be put to the service of a different strategy: to break with the Democratic Party and build a working class organization that will help form a new fighting, militant, and class independent workers’ movement.

We Need a Party of Our Own 

One of the strangest things about the whole situation created by the congressional vote was that it perversely made the Republican Party look like defenders of the working class. To be clear, both capitalist parties, Republicans and Democrats, are united in their support for the ruling class, but the fact that many Republicans voted against the proposal to force rail workers to accept a contract they had explicitly rejected will only drive more working people to the Right, fueling the kind of right-wing populism that brought Trump to power. Republicans are used by Democrats as the eternal “Boogeyman,” but when in office they have enforced the same legislation passed by previous Republican administrations. 

In the absence of an alternative for the working class, socialists have to propose a way out of this impasse.

Against the current of the DSA leadership and the union bureaucracy, a still small but significant phenomenon is developing in the labor movement. This process was in part embodied by the 4,000 labor activists who gathered this year at the Labor Notes conference. 

They are representative of the young people of all races, organized on the Left or not, who want to improve their living and working conditions and who want to fight against the oppression they suffer in their workplaces. This has been expressed in the wave of unionization drives that has only grown since October last year. These are young people who went through the experiences of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, and who drew the conclusion that organizing as workers is the best way to fight for — and win — their demands. 

We have seen this phenomenon among Starbucks workers, Amazon workers, Trader Joe’s workers, Chipotle workers, theater workers, and most recently in the militant struggles of higher education workers. 

As socialists, we have to support these efforts as widely and as passionately as we can because their victories will be an inspiration to the rest of our class and show that we can win. This is how we on the Left can build the foundations of a new party. 

This generation deserves better than to see their dreams and demands stifled by the Democratic Party. We need a party of our own. 

We need a working class party accountable to its members and the working class, not to the Democratic establishment and the bosses. We need a working class party to encourage class struggle, not to shut it down. 

Our responsibility as socialists is not to make compromises with the bosses and capitalist politicians to receive crumbs but to develop the consciousness of the working class in every struggle, in every election, in every leaflet, on the picket lines, and in the strikes. To stop a strike goes against the whole tradition of struggle of our class, the working class, and the practice of revolutionaries. For us strikes are schools of war. As Lenin made clear: 

When the rich capitalists are confronted by individual, propertyless workers, this signifies the utter enslavement of the workers. But when those propertyless workers unite, the situation changes. There is no wealth that can be of benefit to the capitalists if they cannot find workers willing to apply their labor-power to the instruments and materials belonging to the capitalists and produce new wealth. As long as workers have to deal with capitalists on an individual basis they remain veritable slaves who must work continuously to profit another in order to obtain a crust of bread, who must forever remain docile and inarticulate hired servants. But when the workers state their demands jointly and refuse to submit to the money-bags, they cease to be slaves, they become human beings, they begin to demand that their labour should not only serve to enrich a handful of idlers, but should also enable those who work to live like human beings. Strikes, therefore, always instill fear into the capitalists, because they begin to undermine their supremacy.

In the current context in the U.S, this means that revolutionary socialists must participate in every union struggle with the aim of forging a new labor movement that will fight with its methods to build new unions and to overturn all anti-strike and anti-union laws in this country. 

We also need a working class party that fights for the interests of the working class across the world: no more representatives in Congress calling themselves socialists while they support U.S. imperialism and the suppression of the liberation struggle of our comrades in Palestine. No more representatives in Congress speaking of socialism while collaborating with a government that oppresses our comrades in Mexico. 

We need a party of the working class with a socialist strategy that does not discriminate between our struggles for bread and butter demands and our struggles against racism and oppression, but unifies them in the same struggle against capitalism. 

The rank and file of the DSA, the youth fighting for unions and against oppression in their workplaces and schools, the small but new organizations that emerged from BLM in 2020, and the broad socialist and communist Left have the opportunity to challenge the idea that there is no alternative outside the Democratic Party. We have the opportunity to discuss with thousands of people in our workplaces and schools about the party we need. 

Our task as revolutionary socialists is not only to unite the ranks of the far Left, but to build a party of the working class and oppressed in the tens of thousands. In other words, the struggle to convince sectors of the working class to break with the Democratic Party is essential.

We have to organize in the labor movement and the social movements without being burdened with the betrayals of a party that has nothing to do with the interests of the exploited and oppressed.

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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