Workers in East Palestine discuss politics, derailment

By Mary Martin
June 12, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — At the street fair going on here, Nancy Felger, a retired health care worker and former shop steward of her Service Employees International Union local, told Socialist Workers Party member Candace Wagner that she heard that Norfolk Southern paid for the kids’ rides at the fair.

“Here’s an idea,” Felger said, “How about the CEO of Norfolk Southern gets in the dunk tank — where you hit the target with a softball and he goes down in the tank — but fill the tank with water from Leslie Run!” Leslie Run is a creek in East Palestine now thoroughly contaminated by vinyl chloride and other chemicals that got into area waterways after the Norfolk Southern derailment, fires and chemical leaks in February.

Felger was one of many working people Wagner and two other SWP members met on their doorsteps May 25. Felger’s comments reflect the widespread disgust with the rail bosses and government agencies that refuse to listen to the workers and farmers and make light of concerns about their homes, medical care, and the situation facing people who were forced to leave home, some suffering ongoing effects from toxic contamination. We heard many stories of the contempt and bureaucratic red tape workers face  when they try to apply for housing, medical testing and other programs they were promised.

Many were interested in discussing how their situation is similar to what rail workers, chemical refinery workers and others face.

Candace Wagner, a railroad conductor in Pennsylvania and member of the SMART-TD union, told Felger that what they face from the rail bosses and the government — which barred them from striking last fall — reflects their laser-focused concern for profits and disdain for our rights and our lives.

She pointed to attacks on constitutional rights by the Joseph Biden administration and its use of the FBI as a partisan assault force against its political opponents. This includes the armed FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Florida home and the growing mountain of charges filed against him. “My party doesn’t support Trump, or any capitalist politician, but we know these assaults will always come back on the working class,” Wagner said.

Felger agreed, saying, “You know I voted for Trump but I won’t vote for him again. But yes, the raid on his home and now these charges against him are all being overdone.” Felger took a copy of the Militant to read more and said she would consider getting a subscription.

Scott Mason, a 53-year-old machinist at a nonunion plant in the area, lives two blocks from the site of the derailment and fires. He’s an army veteran from Washington’s Desert Storm war against Iraq in 1991. Mason said his brothers were among the soldiers deployed during the ‘turkey shoot” on the road to Basra there. He said they described horrific scenes they can’t forget and that he didn’t want to learn about.

Mason said he has little faith in the policies put forward by Democrats and Republicans, at home or internationally. He was raised to think the Democrats were somehow better for the working man, he said, “but it seems the two parties have changed places and done a 180 degree turn as far as what they push for.”

Party member Dave Ferguson told him we think working people need to break with the Democrats and Republicans and form a labor party based on the unions. “Yes, that really sounds like the right idea,” Mason said.

Ferguson showed him the Militant’s coverage of the struggle by working people in East Palestine since the derailment. Ferguson said the paper is helping get the word out and their fight is part of increased labor resistance we are seeing. He told him about numerous strikes by his union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers.

Mason decided to subscribe, and looked over the book The Low Point of Labor Resistance Is Behind Us: The Socialist Workers Party Looks Forward. Pointing to the photo on the book’s cover of crowds at a cemetery in Iran gathered to protest the death of Zhina Amini at the hands of the hated morality police, he said, “The killing of that woman in Iran over her headscarf was terrible. We have come way too far in history to keep things the same as they were in another century. It is just not right.”