Railworkers’ recent labor battle exposed their increasingly brutal working conditions. We spoke with journalist Ryan Grim about the rank-and-file effort to rebuild power in rail unions — so workers can fight the railroad bosses even harder next time.

By Doug Henwood and Ryan Grim, Jacobin

Life in the railroad industry has become miserable for workers. Over the last several years, the big lines have been using a strategy called precision scheduled railroading, which is a fancy term for running trains that are as long as possible — some as long as five miles — staffed with as few workers as possible. Employment industry-wide is down about 30 percent over the last five years, and pay is down about 18 percent after inflation.

rail workers

That hasn’t resulted in a productivity miracle, but it has been great for railroad profits and hell on workers — who, as anyone who followed the recent rail dispute knows, aren’t even entitled to paid sick days.

Journalist Ryan Grim has published a long, well-reported article at the Intercept on rank-and-file organizing that railroad workers have undertaken, the political landscape of the settlement imposed this month by Washington, and the possibilities for future action. He spoke on Jacobin Radio’s Behind the News about the fight between railroad workers and their massively exploitative employers. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

DOUG HENWOOD: Let’s go back a decade or so, where you begin the piece. Precision schedule railroading was new to the scene. What is this practice, and how have the railroads been implementing it?

RYAN GRIM: What they’re trying to do is keep the trains running as much as possible and keep them as long as possible. You now have trains that stretch more than five miles long. They are also running them with much fewer staff — to the point where some of the unions are running a two-crew campaign to make sure that there are at least two workers on the train. This is dangerous not just for the workers on the train but for those who live around rail tracks.

And they are all regional monopolies. So they can basically charge whatever they want to charge.

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