The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 78/No. 22      June 9, 2014

Canadian gov’t frames up workers
for deadly profit-driven rail disaster
(front page)
LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec — Forty-seven people were killed here July 6, 2013, in a fiery train explosion as a result of the rail bosses’ unbounded pursuit of profits. The government, backing the owners of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, is pinning the blame on three rail employees who were arrested May 12 and charged with 47 counts of “criminal negligence causing death,” and face possible life sentences. The bosses walk scot-free.

Thomas Harding, the engineer of the train, and Richard Labrie, who was acting as the rail controller at the time of the disaster, are workers and members of the Steelworkers union. The third, Jean Demaître, was manager of train operations. The three have been released on bail of $15,000.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, which faces fines for safety violations, has filed for bankruptcy and was sold to another company in January.

The rail bosses were running the 72-car oil tanker — laden with explosive crude — with one operator, Harding. Only decades ago, moving such freight would have been inconceivable without a full crew that included a conductor, two brakemen, an engineer and a fireman. But the federal government has allowed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic to run its trains with one-person “crews” in order to increase its profit margins. And, for the same reason, MMA has been allowed to continue using tanker cars that since 1991 have been known to be vulnerable to explode if derailed.

The night of the disaster Harding parked the train 11 kilometers (7 miles) from Lac-Mégantic with the brakes on and the motor running, in conformity with company regulations. At 11:30 p.m., July 5, MMA employees called firefighters to extinguish a small fire in one of the locomotives. They left when MMA officials told them the train was secure and didn’t present any danger. At 1 a.m., the train with no one on board, started to roll with increasing speed until it derailed and barreled into the center of the town where several cars exploded, immolating 47 people.

The overwhelming reaction to the arrests among working people in this town of 6,000 has been one of anger that those who are really responsible have not been charged.

“Justice has not been delivered to the right people, it’s the government that is responsible,” Karina Bilodeau, who was a waitress at the Musi-Café where most people were killed, told the Militant. Thomas Harding “is only a worker,” she said. “For sure he should not have left the train all by itself, but the orders came from above.”

“The central problem is the lack of regulation and the fact that they let a 72-car train run with just one engineer,” said Patrice Laframboise, a doctor who lives very close to where the explosion took place. “They should arrest the owner, the board of directors of the company and the politicians who decide.” And the massive contamination caused by the oil has yet to be cleaned up, he added.

“For the governments and the big bosses, it’s dollar signs which count,” said resident Emmanuel Baillargeon.

Harding was arrested at gun point by a police tactical squad in the backyard of his home May 12 in front of his son and a friend. All three accused were brought in handcuffs to the Sports Center in Lac-Mégantic to be arraigned. Many townspeople were there, having been informed of the planned arrest in advance. But many were angry that the blame was being wrongly pinned on company employees.

“We can’t judge these people, they work for the MMA. These aren’t the bosses of the MMA,” Danielle Champagne, who lost her daughter in the fire, told CTV News at the scene.

“Thomas Harding is not responsible for the bad state of the railways,” Daniel Roy, the Quebec director of the Steelworkers union, told the Montreal daily La Presse. “The state of the bridges over which the trains pass is not the fault of Mr. Harding. The fact that oil is transported everywhere through the towns of Quebec, is not the fault of Tom Harding and the employees of the MMA. Those who are really responsible are the federal government with deregulation and ceding railways to little companies like the MMA.”

“One would think that we are in antiquity when the dictator brought the accused to be burned in front of everyone,” said Roy, referring to the way the workers were arraigned publicly at the sports center.

The union has established a defense fund for the two members.
Related articles:
Coal miners in Turkey fight for safer conditions:
Thousands strike after bosses’ greed kills over 300
Steelworkers strike in Illinois: ‘Us today, maybe you tomorrow’
Canada court backs deportations based on secret evidence
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