Railroad Workers United: “We Would Never Concede Our Right to Strike”

Congressional progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have defended their railroad strike vote by pointing to rank-and-file support. Here, Railroad Workers United clarifies the group has always unequivocally opposed denying railworkers their right to strike.

A view of Union Pacific Train and workers as the railroad covered with snow in Historic Downtown Truckee of California, United States, March 2, 2023. (Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On April 11, 2023, Jacobin published a transcript of an interview by editor at large David Sirota with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the context of a general discussion about differences between the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and the Biden administration, the subject of the vote to break the strike of the railroad workers came up.

In defending her votes — one to approve seven days of sick leave for railworkers and one to support the president’s bill to block the strike — Ocasio-Cortez states that she was acting on the wishes of Railroad Workers United (RWU) and other groups of railroad workers. She states in the interview, “When you look after the vote, folks like RWU were saying, ‘This is what we asked them to do.” Later she says, “Because, for example, with the rail vote, the only partners that I had leading up to that were railworkers. And if that’s what they asked us to do, then that’s what we did.”

But Ocasio-Cortez is clouding the reality of the situation by referring to “the vote,” when in fact there were two separate and distinctive votes. One bill proposed seven days of paid sick time, while the other bill blocked railworkers from striking; these bills were completely independent of one another.

Railroad Workers United cannot speak with any certainty as to what the official position of the various craft unions’ respective leaderships was on the question of blocking the strike. But RWU made crystal clear by our words and actions throughout contract negotiations that, while we were of course in full support of seven days of paid sick leave for railworkers, RWU would never be in favor of any legislation denying railroad workers our human right to withhold our labor when all else fails in our struggle for safe working conditions and dignity, regardless of whatever concessions may be dangled.

RWU was and is in favor of any legislation that would grant any relief to the barbaric working conditions we contend with — but we would never concede our right to strike. We thank Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the House of Representatives and the Senate for their votes in support of sick leave. But we are not happy at all with her or others in both chambers who voted to deny railroad workers the right to strike.

Throughout the contract fight that raged through fall of 2022, RWU made it clear from the start that we unequivocally opposed the failure of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) #250; that we opposed any tentative agreement based on the PEB recommendations; that we opposed the contract deal cut by Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh with the unions of the operating crafts (the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers–Transportation Division); that we urged all trainmen and engineers to vote no and proceed to a strike; and that when all was said and done and votes were cast, we supported the majority of rank-and-file railroad workers who had voted to strike (55 percent) to indeed engage in such activity upon the strike deadline in early December.

Meanwhile, throughout the entire contract debacle, the official leadership of the myriad unions thwarted efforts of their respective memberships to strike, and continually offered up unpopular tentative agreements. Then, when Biden declared he wanted emergency legislation to block the strike without amendments on a strict up-or-down vote, the union leadership said nothing. Perhaps it was within this context that Ocasio-Cortez got confused about who and which organizations supported what. In the future, we would hope that Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians contact RWU if and when they are interested in the official positions and statements of the organization.