labor ‘Workers Know the Truth’ About the Derailment Disaster – Why Are They Being Ignored?
Throughout the recent hazardous chemical freight train derailment in Ohio and the four-day ordeal that followed while the flaming wreck was stabilized, the one perspective that was consistently missing from the reporting was that of the union railroad workers. It didn’t matter if it was the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Associated Press , the reporting relied on interviews with local, state and federal officials as well as statements from the Norfolk Southern, the rail carrier but not the perspective of their union workers.
It was as if robots and AI were already driving the train. The entire narrative of the cataclysm was framed by officials and the corporation whose malfunctioning train was now putting workers and the community in life-threatening jeopardy. The derailment played out in the rural borderland of Ohio and Pennsylvania requiring both states to activate an emergency evacuation response.
On Friday evening, the tranquility of East Palestine, Ohio, with a population of 4,761 people, was upended when a Norfolk Southern train with 150 cars in tow, derailed sparking a conflagration that inundated the area with toxic smoke. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 20 of the cars in train were carrying hazardous materials.
The U.S. EPA had to start monitoring the air for carbon monoxide, oxygen hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride. Throughout the weekend, firefighters did their best to keep the disabled tanker cars cool as some of the hazardous cargo burned off. The local fire chief told reporters he was concerned about the presence of vinyl chloride, a colorless, toxic, and flammable gas.
“If you are in this red zone that is on the map and you refuse to evacuate, you are risking death,” Pennsylvania’s Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) warned. “If you are within the orange area on this map, you risk permanent lung damage within a matter of hours or days.”
In initial comments, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] posited that the derailment of the 150-car train was most likely caused by a problem with one of the axles on one of the freight or tanker cars. The catastrophic derailment, with significant public health and environmental implications, comes a few months after President Biden and Congress imposed a contract on the nation’s rail unions that their rank and file rejected in part because it lacked paid sick days.
In the Congressional debate over the draconian and anti-democratic move, members who supported the rail workers gave the nation a crash course in how the nation's rail industry operates. Since the 1980s, the nation had gone from close to 50 Class 1 railroads down to just seven with the Wall Street monopoly power akin to the 19th-century robber barons. Through their 21st century “precision scheduling railroading,” these latter-day robber barons where putting workers’ safety and the community’s well-being at risk.
Monday, the rail carrier had to undertake a controlled gas release from several of the tankers who were at risk of exploding and potentially sending shrapnel as far as a mile away. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) had to deploy the National Guard as officials scrambled to prevent a "catastrophic tanker failure” while the local Sheriff issued a stern evacuation order.
“The 1-mile evacuation zone in East Palestine is in effect and will be enforced. You may be arrested for 2917.13 Misconduct in an emergency, which is a fourth-degree misdemeanor if only adults are in the household, and a first-degree misdemeanor if children are in the household. Further charges of endangering children will apply also. There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and or explosion. Again, we will be enforcing the evacuation zone. Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger.”
"You need to leave,” Gov. DeWine warned. “You just need to leave. We are ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”
A spokesman for the Norfolk Southern Railroad described for NPR how the rail carrier was creating a small hole in each one of the unstable tank cars and allowing substances to go down into a pit which would then be lit on fire to control the tank cars they were worried might just explode. After a planned detonation, news reports described “a black mushroom” cloud billowing upward.
"The detonation went perfect and we're already to a point where the cars are safe," declared the railroad’s spokesman.
THE PRICE FOR PROFITS
At a December union solidarity rally for rail workers on Capitol Hill Brian Renfrow, president of the National Letter Carriers, was cheered when he observed that since 2015 the seven largest railroads were squeezing their workers while racking up record profits “totaling near $150 billion and in that same time frame, since 2015, these same companies have cut tens of thousands of jobs."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) described how the greed mentality of Wall Street had thoroughly corrupted the rail industry putting workers and the communities through which the train passed at risk.
"They walked into the industry a number of years ago and said, 'Hey, you are too nice to your workers. Tighten up — cut, cut, and cut,' and in the last six years we have seen a 30 percent reduction in the workforce," Sanders said. "You guys have to do more with less support and that is their ideology: How do we work people to the bone, so we can make $20 billion a year? That is why we have to put an end to precision schedule railroading."
Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, representing the 37 unions in that sector, said it was too soon to attribute specific causes for the East Palestine derailment. But he warned that in general, America’s freight rail carriers were eluding any real regulation because the federal reporting system for near misses and minor incidents that signal bigger problems remains entirely voluntary and not one of them was opting to participate unlike in the aviation industry.
“I don’t think we have a very accurate accounting of how often these incidents occur and what the risks are for both the employees and the general public because not one of these Class One railroads participates in the Confidential Close Calls reporting system where employees can report near misses or minor incidents without fear of repercussions from their employer,” he said.
Regan added that while the Class 1 freight behemoths were choosing to fly without this basic safety net, the nation’s commuter and passenger rail outfits like Amtrak were participating in this commonsense compliance program that promotes safety because what gets measured gets managed.
Ross Grooters is an Iowa based locomotive engineer [BLET Teamsters], and the co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a cross-craft caucus of rail workers and their supporters. Like Regan, he would not speculate about the East Palestine derailment while the official investigation was underway, however, he did stress that “as with any of these accidents, there are a series of failures involved.”
And he does believe that the lack of a labor perspective in the reporting out of these kinds of industrial accidents leaves the public in the dark about just how dangerous and stressful railroading has become as Wall Street has increasingly put the squeeze on the railroading workforce.
“It would certainly be helpful to center the story around the voices of the workers but there’s going to be a lot of fear against anybody speaking out in our industry for fear of retaliation from these companies — this has a real chilling effect on people’s ability to speak out,” Grooters said during a phone interview. “And, yes it does mean that the public is not educated about how increasingly risky these jobs have become as the carriers are taking more chances in order to pad their bottom line and increase their profits.”
John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 150,000 workers in the rail, airline, transit, utility, and service sectors believes that the public loses when labor’s insights are not included in the news media’s reporting on derailments
“The workers know the truth as to what happened in that derailment and employers are the voice of the cover-up and the employers’ instincts is to blame workers for these types of derailments,” Samuelsen said. “They will never blame disinvestment and state of good repair of both the rolling stock and the track. The employers will never acknowledge that they have cut staff on the rails to bare bones. So, without the voice of the workers and their unions there’s never going to be balanced, truthful reporting on what happened on any given derailment or any given tragedy across freight rail — and that includes collisions.”
Samuelsen continued. “If you look at our public mass transit derailments in Philadelphia, Miami or here in New York City — the union was in the forefront of getting to the heart of the matter for what the cause of the derailment was. In fact, in 2016, there was the case with the subway derailment in Brooklyn at the 7th Ave. Station that put the collapsing of the MTA’s state of good repair, and it was the involvement of TWU Local 100 that drove that narrative and resulted in the advancement of the good repair agenda. Absent the voice of the unions — these companies are just going to do business the way they want.”
The TWU International president says that when unions can foster a ‘speak up culture’ consumers and transit corridor communities benefit directly.
“Just look at the insight that the trade union movement provided to the debacle of Southwest Airlines at the end of last year when thousands and thousands of air travelers were stranded by cancellations because the carrier had disinvested over several decades by not upgrading in the technology required to avoid the kind of collapse that actually happened,” he said. “Without the truth telling from TWU Locals 555 and 556, Southwest would still be doing their perpetual song and dance.”
Sara Nelson, president of CWA’s Association of Flight Attendants, said, “A true commitment to safety includes embracing non-punitive reporting systems for everyone working in the operation; the opportunity to identify and catch safety loopholes before they become tragic is paramount for workplace safety and public safety.”
An email inquiry to Norfolk Southern media desk to determine their status in, or views on the Confidential Close Calls compliance regime, was not returned in time for publication.
The AFL-CIO’s Regan observed the first priority of the unions that represent the workers on the train involved in the East Palestine derailment has to be representing them before the NTSB. “They have to maintain their standing in the NTSB to make sure there is no BS from the railroads trying to whitewash what happened — that explains why you are not hearing from the operating crafts [in the media],” Regan said. “And potentially, that would be true for the track inspectors or signal [maintainers]; the minute you start talking to the press you lose your standing.”
Meanwhile, as of this writing, the folks that were forced to evacuate their homes have filled regional hotels and motels with their lives upended. Local TV news outlets have begun reporting local fish kills. At least one class action lawsuit by residents has been filed.
“Leslie Run comes out of East Palestine and that goes into Bull Creek, which then goes into North Fork. And we know for sure that there has been some fish kill in Leslie Run and Bull Creek, and some portions of the North Fork,” Matthew Smith, the assistant regional scenic river manager for the Ohio’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves told WKBN-TV.
PUBLIC MEDIA COMES THROUGH
The breaking news reporting out of WESA NPR affiliate, based in Pittsburgh stood out as exemplary. Its reporting did not include labor voices, but they did engage local environmentalists who were conversant with the impact of the rail carriers’ reliance on their ‘precision scheduling railroading’ which incentivized the running of longer and heavier trains while cutting the workforce.
Glenn Olcrest, with Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, told the local NPR station a similar evacuation in his city’s East Liberty section would require the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents.
“This is a blueprint of what's going to come to a neighborhood near you in Pittsburgh,” Olcrest told WESA.
East Palestine evacuee Lisa Fulton told a WKYC-TV [3News] reporter she was angry with officials and the rail company because initially she was told to evacuate as just a precaution. "I think they hid things from us," Fulton said. "Who knows when we will go back? It's never going to be the same again.”