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Vol. 78/No. 36      October 13, 2014

Union fights frame-up of
Lac-Mégantic rail workers
MONTREAL — The United Steelworkers union has launched a “justice fund” for train engineer Tom Harding and traffic controller Richard Labrie, who were framed up for a train disaster last year that killed 47 people.

On July 6, 2013, a runaway 72-car train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a town of 5,900 near the Quebec-Maine border. The vast majority of rail workers, as well as other working people in Lac-Mégantic, see the derailment and explosion as the result of company policies that increasingly put the lives of workers and those who live near the tracks at risk for profit. As part of the cover-up, however, Harding and Labrie were charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence.

“On May 12, 2014, two unionized workers of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) were arrested in connection with the July 2013 tragedy in Lac-Mégantic,” says a Steelworkers leaflet titled “Justice for USW Rail Workers — Scapegoats and the Truly Responsible,” available online in French and English. “Tom Harding, Richard Labrie and a company manager were charged with criminal negligence. The next day they were publicly paraded in handcuffs into a makeshift courtroom in the vicinity. Lac-Mégantic citizens witnessing the spectacle were not fooled. They knew that ‘the real culprits were still free.’

“Ex-MMA owner and president Ed Burkhardt was not placed in handcuffs,” the flyer adds. “Nor were there charges against the Harper government that joined with corporations to deregulate the rail industry and allow single-worker train crews.” In 2012 the federal government’s regulatory agency Transport Canada approved the MMA using one-man crews on the rail corridor between Farnham, Quebec, and Lac-Mégantic.

Rail bosses in the U.S. have also been pushing to run some freight trains with only an engineer. But on Sept. 9, SMART-organized rail workers overwhelming rejected — by a vote of 3,056 to 623 — a one-person “crew” proposal promoted by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway bosses and a section of the union officialdom.

The MMA train was parked about seven miles above Lac-Mégantic. After a fire broke out on a locomotive, firemen shut down the lead engine, which slowly released the train’s air brakes. The hand brakes failed to hold the train.

Harding, who was arrested at gunpoint in his home, is viewed as a hero by many in the town. When he learned about the derailment, Harding rushed to the site and risked his life to help firemen depressurize brakes on some of the cars that had not yet caught fire so they could be moved.

Tom Harding’s lawyer, Thomas Walsh, requested that charges be dropped following an Aug. 19 report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. The Quebec provincial prosecutor opposed the request.

While the report sought to absolve the government of responsibility, it pointed to the company’s lack of adequate safety procedures and its refusal to enforce government rail regulations. Among other things, the report explained the cause of the fire that led to the disabling of the air-brake system: “inadequate money-saving repairs … led to an oil fire in the locomotive after the engineer left the train.”

On Sept. 11 the prosecutor presented in court 53,000 computer files seized by U.S. investigators at the request of Quebec provincial cops. The prosecutor claims the evidence could put Harding in prison for life.

Harding’s next court appearance is Jan. 15, 2015, where a date will be set for a preliminary hearing.

As of Sept. 30 more than $160,000 from Steelworkers locals and other unions has been sent to the defense fund. Steelworkers officials have addressed local union meetings about the defense campaign. Donations can be made by check to: Syndicat des Métallos. Please note “Justice for USW Rail Workers” on your check. Send to Syndicat des Métallos, 565, boulevard Crémazie Est, bureau 5100, Montréal, Québec, H2M 2V8. Credit card donations can be made at For more information or to request a speaker call 514-382-9596.
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