Help build labor involvement in the East Palestine fight over derailment

By Dave Ferguson
June 12, 2023
Fire blazes among damaged rail cars filled with toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 4, day after derailment. Disaster was caused by rail bosses’ drive for profits over everything else.
Jordan Miller NewsFire blazes among damaged rail cars filled with toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 4, day after derailment. Disaster was caused by rail bosses’ drive for profits over everything else.

COLUMBIANA, Ohio — What is the way forward in the fight to gain control over the cleanup and access to long-term health care in East Palestine? That was the topic when Ashley McCollum set up a meeting with five area residents and Socialist Workers Party members and unionists May 26. The five are all involved with the newly formed Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment.

The massive release of toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, and fires caused by the Feb. 3 derailment of 20 rail cars has upended lives in the area.

“The Socialist Workers Party explains that in order for the fight in the East Palestine area to be sustained for the long haul, to take control over telling Norfolk Southern and the government what to do here, it’s necessary for the unions to get involved front and center,” Candace Wagner said. “My union, SMART-Transportation Division, the rail conductors’ union, put the struggle here on the front page of its national union magazine.”

Rail worker and SWP member Candace Wagner, left, speaks with Nancy Felger, a retired health care worker and former SEIU shop steward, at her home in East Palestine, Ohio, May 25.
Militant/Mary MartinRail worker and SWP member Candace Wagner, left, speaks with Nancy Felger, a retired health care worker and former SEIU shop steward, at her home in East Palestine, Ohio, May 25.

The article quotes Jeremy Ferguson, the union president, who says, “This derailment didn’t have to happen.” He explains the direct tie between the fight of rail workers against the consequences on us of the bosses’ profit drive and this disaster. We have a common fight.”

Wagner described how rail unionists have been fighting against dangerous conditions on the job — cuts in crucial maintenance, layoffs and more work pushed on the backs of the remaining workers, crew cuts, longer hours, working on call 24/7 and more. These endanger not just the workers, but all those who live or work by the tracks.

Rail locals in Nebraska have adopted statements in solidarity with the fight in East Palestine and plan to send them to their international unions and others. Officers of a Teamsters local in California sent a message endorsing the rail unions’ support of East Palestine residents.

This perspective made sense. “I know a rail union member I can talk to,” Shelby Walker, who lives a block from the derailment site, said. McCollum said, “My boyfriend works at a pipe mill and is a member of the United Steelworkers union. I’ll talk to him about the idea of them inviting me to speak to their union meeting about supporting us.”

Daren Gambla said he’s retired after 30 years as a union bricklayer, but still has contacts.

“What’s possible and can bring the most needed help is for union locals here to organize their members to bring their weight to bear. And they can call on their national organizations to publicize the fight and explain how the health and safety of workers is directly linked to the health and safety of these communities,” Wagner said.

“Another connection is oil and chemical plants, which are organized by the United Steelworkers union. Three major fires have broken out in refineries and chemical plants in Texas in the last three weeks. One is in the town of Deer Park, where the vinyl chloride that was spilled and burned here came from,” she said.

Mary Martin, visiting from Minneapolis, pointed to the upcoming June 21-23 meetings of the National Transportation Safety Board in East Palestine as an opportunity to mobilize support, particularly union members, for the fight.

The NTSB announcement says they are holding a special June 21 community meeting at the East Palestine High School for area residents from both Ohio and Pennsylvania to ask questions about its “safety investigation to determine the probable cause of the Norfolk Southern Railway train derailment, hazardous materials release and fires.”

“Both rail workers and people here would have a lot to say about that!” Martin said.

Media, government disdain

“The National Review  recently published an editorial complaining that the East Palestine derailment was an ‘isolated and sensationalized’ event,” Wagner said. “What they mean by ‘sensationalized’ is that you guys won’t go away and shut up. That’s important. And of course, we’ve all seen the continuing stream of derailments since, including in Ohio.”

The meeting took place at a hotel here where a number of people displaced by the derailment are staying. “My family saw the fire from our porch and left town that night,” McCollum said. She and her son have been living in a hotel since. “I feel like a prisoner.”

“The Environmental Protection Agency says that testing results of the soil take six to eight weeks,” Gambla said. “How was it that they deemed it safe for us to return to our homes in 48 hours after they burned off the vinyl chloride? When my wife spends a half hour in town, she gets sick. My foster kids get sick.”

Zsuzsa Gyenes and her 9-year-old son have tested positive for vinyl chloride. “But my doctor doesn’t know what to do about it,” she said. One of the demands raised by their group is for the railroad to pay for independent medical attention by doctors, chosen by the residents, who are experienced in treating chemical exposure.

Several expressed frustration in trying to get aid the rail bosses say they’ll provide for relocating or reimbursement for expenses. “There’s no consistency,” Gyenes explained. “One person goes in the Norfolk Southern Help Center and gets aid. The next one they deny it.”

Geordan Reynolds explained she lives near Sulfur Run Creek where the runoff from the chemical spill and water used to fight the fires flowed into. The rainwater that gets into her basement has rainbows of chemical sheen. “They intimidate you, especially if you’re a woman going in alone,” she said. “They tell you to put out the money for a hotel and later you’ll get reimbursed. But my husband and I don’t have the money to do that.”

“And all the extra expenses we have laid out that the railroad reimburses are set as taxable income!” Gambla added.

Jami Wallace, who took the initiative to organize the Unity Council, called Wagner later. She is a former executive board member of Service Employees International Union 1199 at Ohio State University in Cleveland. “There were five different unions there, but we all faced the same issues,” Wallace said. “I organized a Unity Council so we could act together. That’s where I got the idea for the East Palestine Unity Council.”

She said she’s organizing to get letters to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed by union officers supporting the demand that he declare a state of emergency in East Palestine. This would free up more funding for area residents. “I’ve started contacting SEIU officers I know about getting that union on board,” Wallace explained.

“East Palestine is a union issue completely connected to the fights for health and safety on the job,” Wagner said. “The fight here needs union power.”