MINNEAPOLIS — Two events took place Feb. 3 that highlight the importance and potential of rail workers’ continuing fight for safety and a decent living, including schedules that allow for a life off the job for family, union building and more.
First, a 150-car Norfolk Southern train almost 2 miles long and weighing 18,000 tons derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, dumping 50 cars on the ground. Five were tank cars containing dangerous vinyl chloride, which vaporizes into phosgene when burned, the same gas that killed over 75,000 soldiers in the first imperialist World War.
Second was a protest by some 50 rail workers — members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees — in front of Canadian Pacific’s U.S. headquarters here. They aren’t covered by the Class 1 railroad contract imposed on workers by the bosses and government last fall, and are demanding higher wages, paid sick days and more.
Deadly danger in Ohio derailment
The Norfolk Southern train had a crew of three workers, an engineer, conductor and conductor trainee. In search of speedup and higher profits, NS bosses have cut back on car inspections, and an axle failure on the train led to an emergency full brake application. When the train went into emergency the cars started jackknifing, dumping 50 onto the ground and a giant fire broke out. The crew was able to uncouple the three engines and drive free.
Authorities ordered everyone who lived within a mile of the derailment evacuated. When it was disclosed what the contents of the tank cars were, they decided it was too dangerous to try and put the fire out.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine deployed the National Guard two days later, announcing there had been drastic temperature changes in one of the tankers, raising the potential for an explosion that would shatter the rail car and shoot dangerous chemicals and shrapnel flying out in a mile-wide radius.
In a statement, Candace Wagner, the 2022 Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, who is also a freight rail conductor and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union based in Pittsburgh, 40 miles from East Palestine, said:
“The most recent derailment in Ohio is a reflection of the dangerous working conditions facing rail workers and all those living in the communities alongside the tracks.
“The rail bosses, backed by the federal government, refused to address any safety or other substantive issues raised by rail workers through our unions in the recent national rail negotiations.
“In their lust for profits, the railroad bosses are running increasingly long, heavy trains and pushing on rail workers smaller crews, arbitrary schedules, longer shifts and more work than ever before. Massive cuts have been made in the operating crafts, car inspectors, mechanical and maintenance of way workforces. All this leads to derailments like this, which show that to protect rail workers and all those living near the tracks, our unions need to fight for workers control of production.
“We need measures like a limit of 50 cars per train; a minimum crew of four with two on the head end and two in a caboose or engine on the rear. The state authorities declared a state of emergency in the East Palestine area. Thousands have been evacuated near the derailment. No one knows the long-term effects of this incident on the health of the workers involved, the local residents, and on the air, soil and water.
“A capitalist government functions to guarantee profits for the bosses, facilitating their power to exploit workers’ labor. This is their job, not taking steps to develop the railroads or any other industry to advance the needs of society. For workers, union power and class independence becomes a precondition not only to take control over safety but to organize freight and passenger transportation not for profit, but to meet the needs of workers and farmers.
“We need to build a labor party based on our unions to unite all those exploited and oppressed by capital to organize effective solidarity with union and social struggles and fight to take political power into our own hands.”
On Feb. 6, authorities expanded the evacuation zone — threatening anyone who entered with arrest — punctured and drained the tank cars, then set the leaked contents on fire.
A day later, residents were still barred from returning home, and area residents and evacuees close to the evacuation zone were told to stay inside.
DeWine said that at some point National Guard troops dressed in special protective gear would be sent to check if the air there was safe.
BMWE workers fight for contract
The protest organized in Minneapolis by the BMWE unionists demanded Canadian Pacific return to negotiations and address workers’ pressing issues of wages, punitive work rules, lack of paid sick days and inadequate reimbursement for away-from-home expenses. The union says conditions today are dangerous and damage the quality of workers’ lives.
BMWE members build and maintain rail tracks around the country. These workers work for the Canadian Pacific on U.S. tracks that used to belong to the Soo Line, Milwaukee Road and the Delaware and Hudson, companies that no longer exist.
Chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Union power,” pickets got thumbs ups and honked horns from passing drivers. Union officers used a megaphone to tell protesters and passersby that after more than a year of fruitless negotiations, CP bosses had walked out. They say they want federal intervention.
“Things are boiling and if we get the opportunity to strike, we’re not taking it off the table,” said George Loveland, a BMWE vice general chair.
He said lack of any sick days is an important issue, “If you get sick, or your child is sick, and your wife also doesn’t have any sick time at work, then we have no way to help out,” he said. “And If we miss work, we get in trouble and face discipline from the company.”
Loveland told the Militant another rally in Omaha in March is being planned.
A Teamsters Local 125 truck was parked by the pickets, outfitted with heaters, chairs and hot coffee so unionists could thaw out and meet one another.
Joining the picket were members of the SMART-TD conductors union at Canadian Pacific in Minnesota and BNSF in Nebraska, two BMWE members from Nebraska, members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 22 here and from the Minnesota Nurses Association.
Clark Ballew, information officer for the BMWE, told the Militant that while Canadian Pacific is cutting crews, it’s raking in record profits, enabling the company to pursue acquiring the Kansas City Southern Railroad, which would make them the only carrier stretching from Canada to Mexico.