Dark Brandon Makes the Trains Run on Time: Union Busting and East Palestine
Dorian Blue Brigham #labor #union #transit
On February 3rd, at around 9pm, a 50-car Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic materials derailed. Tons of vinyl chloride and other harmful chemicals involved in the making of plastics, spilled into the area surrounding the town of East Palestine and the Ohio River. The residents of the town were then evacuated and the EPA and local government began evaluating what kind of cleanup measures needed to be taken. It is an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions, yet all guilty parties have begun the effort to minimize it and deny that such a thing happening was inevitable.
The disaster happened because of regulatory rollbacks in the Trump era and refusal to allow railroad unions and improve working conditions for workers. Barack Obama pushed for safer railway transportation through his attempted mandate of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on trains with more than 20 cars. ECP braking is a system in which cars are simultaneously slowed down rather than being gradually brought to a stop car-by-car.
Many groups and individuals involved with the transportation industry have praised this system as something that would significantly help reduce the severity of train accidents, but unfortunately this mandate was repealed by the Trump administration due to the regulation not being “economically justified” following massive lobbying attempts from rail companies, including Norfolk Southern. These cost cutting short-cuts in the railway industry are not new, and are a part of a system called “precision scheduled railroading,” which focuses on maximizing efficiency with longer and heavier trains to cut costs and deliver more profits.
The adverse effects of this exploitative system go further than the trains themselves, as more than a fifth of the railroad staff employed by Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Union Pacific were laid off throughout 2017-2021, further maximizing profits for each corporation (Bove). Combine these firings with outsourced maintenance, increased train lengths, and reduced safety inspections, and you get a collection of companies sacrificing the well-being of their employees for the benefit of their bank accounts. So much so that railroad carriers have paid out an estimated 196 billion dollars in stock buybacks and dividends to their shareholders since 2010 according to Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman in a September speech.
These profits can primarily be attributed to an abused workforce that was forced to go on strike because of low wages, lacking sick days, staff shortage concerns, and limited time off due to the massive cost-cutting. On December 2nd, President Joe Biden ended the strike before it could truly happen after union negotiations did not reach an ultimate agreement. Biden justified the passing of the bill through the potential economic implications a strike would have.
“It was tough for me but it was the right thing to do at the moment — save jobs, to protect millions of working families from harm and disruption and to keep supply chains stable around the holidays,” Biden said, adding the deal avoided “an economic catastrophe.”
Unfortunately, Biden’s justification of “protecting working families from harm” fails to account for the thousands of people he denied a right to protest against their over-demanding work conditions in one of the most important industries in the country. Many railroad workers are unable to truly have autonomy outside of work, as the current attendance policies mandate workers to be available to work within 90 minutes of all hours of the day throughout every day of the year, with any time off or absences resulting in “point deductions” which can eventually lead to their termination.
Congress’ passing of this bill is an explicit message to anyone in the transportation industry: your labor is more important than your well-being. Employers do not regard any of the actions taken outside of the workplace as valuable, but expect workers to operate at their highest capacity to make up for the lack of staff they disposed of to maximize profits. Rather than taking steps to mitigate the more than 1,000 train derailments occurring a year according to the Department of Transportation, railroad companies and our government have unsurprisingly placed the state of the economy and annual revenues above the reasonable requests of the people who make the operation of these systems possible.
“The industry needs to be brought back under control,” Michael Paul Lindsey, a locomotive engineer and member of Railroad Workers United, a group representing workers from different unions, told Fortune. “We have problems with these massive long trains everywhere along the way, and companies are insistent that it has to work, even if we cut corners doing it.”
While the plight of railroad workers continues, the residents of East Palestine are facing a long and perilous road ahead of them too. With neither Norfolk Southern or the government willing to take actual action and accountability, their homes will never be safe or healthy again. At a recent town hall meeting, a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Debra Shore, told residents that they haven’t found chemical levels that pose health concerns, a bold-faced lie. In response, she was shouted and booed at by the crowd.
The decision made to set the chemicals alight in a controlled burn shortly after the derailing is being particularly scrutinized. Vinyl chloride was burned in high amounts and turned into a colorless gas. This gas is associated with brain, liver and lung cancer as well as lymphoma and leukemia. Residents have been reporting headaches, rashes, sore throats, nausea, and eye and skin irritation with such frequency that a medical clinic has been opened in the area. These are just the symptoms immediately after returning to the area; the implications of what the long-term health effects could look like is devastating.
“They’re all scientists, they’re sitting up here telling us nothing is wrong,” one resident said to Mayor Trent Conaway during a city hall. “I want you to tell me why everyone in my community is getting sick!”
Caution is being taken by many nearby cities and companies that source water from the area. Cincinnati decided to temporarily halt all intake of water from the Ohio River, which was affected by the spill. The Ohio River connects to the Mississippi River and that encompasses 40% of the U.S’s total watershed. This means the exposure is far more widespread than the government and railroad executives will ever admit.
The sheer amount of negligence and apathy being displayed towards the well-being of both the railroad workers and East Palestine residents is appalling, but not surprising. Major environmental disasters are seen as just the cost of business in the late capitalist hellscape we live in. The sooner any signs of damage are brushed under the rug and silenced, the better.
Legislation / Union Sources:
Biden signs bill to block U.S. railroad strike | Reuters
For Railworkers, Sick Days Weren’t the Real Issue — It Was Basic Control of Their Lives (jacobin.com)
archive.ph | Rail workers criticize cost-cutting and lax safety in Ohio crash | Fortune
East Palestine / Train Derailment Sources:
How many train derailments have there been in the US in 2023? (yahoo.com)
“If you have a train near you or a waterway near you, this is a problem for you too,” she said. “Stand up, stand with us and we’re gonna fight until the promises are kept.” – Jessica Conrad, resident of East Palestine