By Chris Townsend
March 14, 2023
When 50 railroad cars carrying highly explosive and toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3rd, it was international news. As the wrecked rail cars burned furiously, dense noxious smoke billowed high into the sky as the spreading chemical liquids ran into the local aquifer and poisoned the entire village. People living downwind and downstream, far into Pennsylvania, were warned to stay inside until the calamity dissipated. The Norfolk Southern train derailment will take many months to clean up; the full extent of adverse health effects are unknown but are expected to be chronic and painful for the residents and ecosystem of the entire area for years to come. Despite calls for President Biden to quickly visit the affected town he declined, instead opting to travel to Ukraine and deliver in-person billions more to prolong and expand the war.
The obvious public relations gaffe was exploited by former President Trump, allowing him to visit the site of the disaster first. In response, the Biden White House dispatched the hapless Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to somehow try to placate and appease the village’s victims, with predictably miserable results. The train wreck calamity illustrated among other things the complete failure of current rail regulation, or at least what is left of it. What we see live-time is the fruit of the two-party driven rail “deregulation” mania. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and now Biden have all worked to provide the rail companies with virtually everything they have dreamed of. But such is the magnitude of failure of the current railroad regulatory situation that it has bolstered a renewed clamor for total nationalization of the industry, led by Railroad Workers United (RWU). Support Public Ownership of the Railroads — Railroad Workers United The United Electrical Workers Union, with several thousand members who manufacture rail equipment and who provide transportation for rail crews also announced support for rail nationalization. Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership | UE (ueunion.org) It has been many decades since rail nationalization was heard from, and we can take it as an encouraging sign at least.
SECOND WHITE HOUSE RAIL FIASCO
The East Palestine debacle was the second railroad disaster for the President in almost as many months. Democrat Joe Biden cynically undermined and squashed the railroad worker strike late last year, crushing it before it had even started. Not because the strike was breaking the law, but because in the judgement of Biden it was untimely and possibly contrary to his political fortunes. Apologists for Biden loudly defended this shameful act, citing all manner of exaggerated economic consequences if the strike was allowed to proceed. The entire Democratic Party establishment worked overtime to justify Biden’s outrage, including AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. Her statement condoning the strikebreaking and promising mythical legislative action for the workers desperately needed sick time was certainly a preposterous new low point for a labor movement accomplished at reaching new lows. No matter that the rail operations workers were being held in virtual serfdom, doomed to toil until they fired themselves as a result of the draconian and dictatorial attendance policies of the rail bosses. Some among the very small left fringe of the Democratic Party spoke up to defend the rail workers, but it was short-lived. Privately, the phenomenally profitable rail monopolies and their political allies all rejoiced, having been rescued from a long overdue and justified strike by “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”
DEMOCRATS WILL NOT CONFRONT RAIL COMPANIES
As the Biden rail strikebreaking and the East Palestine disaster clearly illustrate, the President and the Democratic Party are incapable of seriously confronting the runaway lawlessness of the rail companies. As the rail workers warned repeatedly, the dire labor relations situation was but a reflection of an endemic problem in the industry where public safety, service to shippers, and the lives of the workforce were all dangerously subordinated to the bottom-line profits of the rail companies. So saturated is the White House and Democratic Party apparatus with pro-corporate ideology and bias that it is unthinkable for them to challenge the rail corporations on even basic issues. They are instead treated as legitimate “partners” and are afforded “please and thank you” service at every turn. Throughout the rail negotiations the companies were afforded this friendly treatment as public statements reveal. Much of the clean-up costs in East Palestine – certainly to run into the hundreds of millions – will also be borne by taxpayers. With history as our guide, Norfolk Southern will not admit guilt no matter the ultimate evidence, and any fines or penalties assessed will in all likelihood be reduced to insignificance or dismissed altogether. The White House will occasionally talk tough to satisfy the public, but in the end the kid-glove arrangement will prevail.
In addition to the damage done in East Palestine, it is certainly troubling when one thinks that this railroad – Norfolk Southern – and the other 6 monopoly status Class 1 railroads – are all today toting the same sorts of dangerous cargo through towns identical to East Palestine, using the same worn-out equipment and perpetually fatigued workers. As the rail workers have warned over and over the deferred maintenance, longer and longer train sizes, and smaller and smaller crews all incline towards an inevitable number of derailments with toxic spillage and combustion among the consequences. But on the U.S. political scene the rail strikebreaking was barely noticed and the East Palestine conflagration is now in the rear view mirror. The probability of any significant pushback against the rail barons is almost nil given the current political chemistry.
ANOTHER LABOR MOVEMENT HUMILIATION
Rather than these two episodes being a catalyst for action, as they are in the wake of the even worse deadly corporate crimes represented by the passenger rail disaster in Greece, they are here further indicators of the political straitjacket worn by organized and unorganized labor alike. So diminished in political relevance is today’s labor movement that the twin U.S. rail disasters would have been in most countries a flashpoint for the entire labor movement – possibly even the larger working class. But here, our overall labor movement is largely habituated to defeat, knowing mostly subservience to the Democratic Party. The inglorious Biden bungling of the East Palestine wreck and the insults levied against the railroad union members were just fresh sorry chapters in a decades-long litany of rout and decay for the unions. No other labor movement in the industrial world is as numerically small, politically impotent, backward in methods, and conservative in orientation as is that in the United States.
The railroad brotherhoods exemplify this primitive and failed situation. As the rail negotiations developed and neared the moment of showdown the leadership of most of the rail unions worked hand-in-hand with the Biden apparatus in order to avoid the ultimate strike. Despite the fact that the strike was clearly supported by a majority of the membership – and urgently needed to win the needed time-off. The Biden regime made it clear from the start that they would use their considerable inside influence with the rail union leaderships to steer the negotiations for their benefit, not the benefit of the rank-and-file. The exact dealings of Biden with the rail companies during the negotiations remains unknown, although all the optics would lead one to conclude that the companies were fully supported by the President and all pushing towards surrender was aimed at the unions and not the corporations.
RAILROAD WORKERS UNITED (RWU) TAKES CHARGE
The multi-union and multi-craft Railroad Workers United (RWU) membership network distinguished itself multiple times during the rail crisis, one of the few high points of the situation for labor. For the past 15 years RWU has built solidarity among the badly divided rail unions, focusing on the need for real pushback against increasingly aggressive rail companies. RWU has advocated for unity of the 13 different unions, a common program for bargaining, and a resistance to the rail companies relentless drive for dangerous staff reductions and speedup. The rail monopolies have long sought another reduction crew size on a train from the current two, to one. Prior to the deregulation of the early 1980’s a crew consisting of five workers was the norm. Today, two is the contractually negotiated crew size, although regulators have allowed for mid-train and end-of-train locomotives to be operated robotically from the head end and by its two crew members. In certain rail yard situations entirely robotic operation of locomotives is now permitted. As this absurd and dangerous company-led drive to cut train crews in half renews yet again, despite the Ohio wreck calamity, RWU will be foremost among those resisting this.
Railroad company capture of the governmental railroad regulatory apparatus charged with supposedly protecting the public – and the other corporations who use the railroad to conduct their businesses – is nothing new. In 1909, researcher Gustavus Myers authored “The History of the Great American Fortunes”. A must-read for any student of the growth and corruption of U.S. corporate power. Entire sections of the book reveal the roles played by the various railroads in corrupting government and capturing and corrupting politicians and legislatures to win enormous grants of nearly free land; swindling the public and rail customers alike in the no-holds-barred drive for super-profits; watering stock offerings and engaging in endemic fraud and stock manipulations; arranging through corrupt means for massive taxpayer subsidies for their already profitable railroads; engaging in abominable labor practices leading to untold deaths and injuries among their workforces; and conveniently utilizing the police and military at no cost to put down numerous insurrections by their workforces were all common practices.
Today the situation is increasingly reminiscent of Myers’ appraisal of the rail industry more than 125 years ago. The profitability of the 7 U.S. and Canadian railroad monopoly companies is record-breaking. Money saved on huge employee reductions, with the remaining workers grossly overworked, and vast sums of money pocketed when maintenance is deferred even to dangerous levels, have led to gusher of profits. All 7 Class 1 railroads have experienced huge leaps in profits in the recent period. The Union Pacific company delivered a $7 billion dollar profit for 2022, and astonishingly management was also able to engineer a $6.3 billion dollar stock buyback scheme to benefit stockholders. Norfolk Southern, railroad of the East Palestine disaster, reported a $4.8 billion dollar profit for 2022, a record breaking 8% increase for the company. Last year found Norfolk Southern already in the midst of an eye-popping $10 billion dollar stock buyback scheme. This profit mad mania has also taken place while overall rail traffic has fallen 21% since 2006.
These stock and bookkeeping manipulations help management conceal profits, evade taxes, and deliver massive windfalls primarily to large stockholders. Myers documented similar financial scams of the rail owners in his epic History of the Great American Fortunes. He likewise detailed how government regulators even then possessed the tools to curtail these sorts of manipulations, but as we face today they refuse to use the tools available to them. Neither the Trump or Biden regimes have confronted this perverse situation where financial manipulations take the place of spending on manpower and maintenance, leading directly to deadly calamities and horribly abused and exploited employees.
In summary, the double rail disasters of the Biden regime yet again detail and expose the corruption and inaction of the White House when faced with these life-threatening situations. The Trump regime had no intention of confronting the rail bosses on any of these urgent matters either. Biden has likewise proven his willingness to accommodate the companies at the expense of the workforce and the public. Better press releases may be attributed to Biden, but for the working class the outcomes have been the same under either regime. Sadly so. On the left, our too frequent inclination to minimize, ignore, or remain silent about this reality is what has led to, among other things, a massive shift of working class support into the far right camp. Far from achieving any tangible positive results, the Democrats accommodation and subservience to the rail industry contributes directly to the worsening situation. To deny the obvious is to promote further rightward shift in our already dangerously far-right nation.
EDITORS NOTE: This article was slightly revised by the author on 3/14/23 in response to a trade union organizer’s input.
Great job,Chris. Informative and tough-minded. Loved it.
Corrections and clarifications thanks to RWU’s Ron Kaminkow… the 2-person crew is a negotiated contractual provision and NOT a federal law as I incorrectly mention. RWU has been a leader defending this from company schemes to knock it back to one worker, the engineer only, on an entire train. There are also two Canadian-based class one railroads with some trackage in the U.S., for a total of 7 Class 1 railroads in the combined U.S.-Canada market. Ron also points out that since 2006 the total volume of Class 1 rail traffic has declined in the U.S. by a whopping 21%.… Read more »