Socialist Workers Party statement

Fight for workers control of the railroads

March 13, 2023

This statement was released March 1 by Henry Dennison, a rail worker, member of SMART-TD union, and member of the Socialist Workers Party in Seattle.

The disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the ongoing damage it is doing to the lives, health, and livelihoods of workers, farmers and small-business owners throughout the area is a clear demonstration of why workers must use our unions to fight for control over safety and all aspects of the operation of the railroads.

For many years I worked in the coal mines. On the job I learned from my brothers and sisters in the United Mine Workers of America how miners organized and fought for a measure of control over how we mined coal. Why we had to stand together every day to enforce safety questions, and how we could stand with other workers in other unions to strengthen each other. For a short time the union won the right to shut down production whenever it determined we faced unsafe conditions.

Politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties are using the disaster for their own advantage. The Biden administration claims that they will introduce new regulations they say will give the government the power to prevent more catastrophes like has been visited on East Palestine. But this is a trap. History shows regulations only strengthen the hand of the government, as opposed to the workers themselves. The capitalist rulers’ political parties and government protect the profits and power of the boss class. This was demonstrated yet again when the Biden administration led a bipartisan Congress to ban rail workers right to strike and imposed a contract we had voted down last fall.

Instead of turning regulation of the railroad over to the bosses’ government, we need to use our unions to take control over the conditions we work under. This is the only way we can protect ourselves and all those who live along the tracks.

We need shorter trains. Fifty-car trains with a crew of two on the head end and two in a caboose or engine on the rear would allow workers to keep eyes on the entire train. In East Palestine, this would have enabled us to see the hot axle on train 32N and bring it to a halt, preventing the disaster that took place.

We need to demand the rail bosses stop cutting jobs to boost profits and immediately hire more car inspectors and repairmen, engine mechanics, operating crew members and track workers, and restore engine and car repair facilities that have been shuttered or reduced in size.

The rail bosses’ drive to use longer and longer trains, fewer workers, just-in-time scheduling, and cut back even further on maintenance to boost profits reflects their class priorities — profits over all other concerns. This will lead to more East Palestines, more Lac-Mégantics. Our interest is the protection of the entire working class.

“As long as it is more profitable to clean up a disaster than to prevent one,” Jeremy Ferguson, president of the SMART-TD union, said after the derailment, “these Wall Street-driven rail corporations will continue to hold communities like East Palestine hostage.”

We need to demand that those in East Palestine whose livelihoods and living conditions have been so callously upended by Norfolk Southern bosses and government officials at all levels be compensated. We should demand they receive lifetime medical coverage paid by the railroad because the chemicals that leaked and others produced in the “controlled” fire may take years before they cause disease.

Laws like the Railway Labor Act — passed to strengthen the hands of the rail bosses — and regulations that always favor the bosses don’t exist because the working class is weak. They exist because the capitalist rulers fear our numbers and our potential strength.

We need to step up our use of our unions to fight for our interests and the interests of our class. To do so, we need to build our own party, a labor party, based on our unions, to fight to take political power into our own hands.