Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dear RWU Members & Supporters:
Please see the attached resolution and circulate widely. This Resolution was adopted by the RWU Executive Committee at a special meeting on 9/21/13, and outlines why this struggle is so important and what we need to do to win. As you are probably aware the engineers and trainmen on the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway have been battling against single employee operations of trains in recent months. They are on the front lines of this vital struggle on behalf of all of us. Last week, the workers went out on strike and shut the railroad down until ordered back to work by a federal judge. 

The struggle continues. Let's commit ourselves to do all that we can to ensure that the brothers and sisters on the W&LE win this fight!

RWU Support for W&LE Workers

Whereas the single employee crew issue is one of the most important questions facing rail labor; and

Whereas RWU has pledged since our Founding Convention in 2008 to do all in our power to oppose the idea of single employee crews; and

Whereas, the UTU and the BLET leadership have both recently come out in favor of a national campaign to stop the practice of single employee train crews; and

Whereas, the great potential dangers of single crew operations have been highlighted by recent events in Lac Megantic, Quebec; and

Whereas the workers on the Wheeling & Lake Erie (W&LE) have been fighting against single employee crew designs of their employer for a number of years now; and

Whereas these engineers and trainmen on the W&LE have gone on strike to defend the two-person crew and oppose the W&LE use of single employee crews; and

Whereas it is vital that these fellow workers win this struggle and show not just the W&LE but the other rail carriers as well that union labor will not tolerate train operations with a lone employee; and

Whereas the struggle of these brothers and sisters has ramifications for engineers and trainmen and ALL railroad workers throughout North America; their fight is our fight!

Therefor be it Resolved that Railroad Workers United pledges our unwavering solidarity and assistance—morally, physically and materially – in whatever way possible to assist these brave workers to win this struggle; and

Be it Further Resolved, that we call on the leadership of both the UTU and the BLET to make good on their promise to “lead a national campaign” against single employee crews by doing all in their power to assist these workers, including but not limited to: personally showing up and walking the picket line; activating their respective “mobilization” networks; providing material strike benefits and support; and publicizing the strike far and wide; and

Be it Finally Resolved that RWU calls on all railroad workers -- especially those in geographical proximity -- to join the picket line, to bring material aid and assistance and otherwise support the workers on the W&LE.

Adopted by the RWU Executive Committee 9/21/13

The W&LE Struggle Against Single Employee Crews

The W&LE Struggle
 Against Single Employee Crews:

A Pledge of Support from Railroad Workers United

1 -- Pass a Resolution of Support and circulate copies among all railroad workers and the W&LE workers in specifically.

2 -- Urge RWU members in the Ohio area to drive to one of the 15 W&LE terminals (obtain a listing of locations) and walk the picket line with our W&LE brothers and sisters whenever they have a picket line up.

3 -- Make a solidarity donation to any strike fund that may develop. Organize bucket collections around the country at railroad terminal entrances so all railroad workers might financially assist the effort.

4 – Write an “Open Letter”, one each to BLET President Pierce and UTU President Futhey, asking that they make good on their promises to wage a national campaign against single employee crews by taking the following actions: (a) Appear on the picket line; (b) Call a press conference in Brewster, Ohio (W&LE headquarters) to raise the issue of single employee crews; (c) Pledge complete support to the W&LE workers in their fight against single employee crews; (d) Activate their internal mobilization network to build rank and file support.

5 – Publish articles in upcoming issues of the RWU newsletter The Highball about the strike and the struggle of the W&LE workers.
6 -- Urge our members and all railroad workers on Class I carriers who interchange cars with W&LE while the workers to ensure that these cars are inspected properly for safety compliance. RWU encourages all W&LE workers (car knockers, track workers, diesel house and others in addition to trainmen and engineers) to ensure “100% rules compliance”.

7 – Make contacts with W&LE and rank & filers as well as local union leaders to let them know that RWU is there to assist in any way we can – with funds, T-shirts, stickers, picket support, publicity, joint brainstorming and strategizing, etc.

8 – Encourage all BLET and UTU officials (local chairmen, legislative reps, etc.) who might have the ear of their respective national union leaders to contact them and inform them of how important it is for all of us to win this struggle on the W&LE. Their fight is our fight!

Adopted by the RWU Executive Committee September 21st, 2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Lac Megantic Runaway Train Disaster Why Did it Happen?

A complex set of factors led up to the tragedy that befell the community of Lac Megantic, Quebec in July. While we may never know the exact set of circumstances that led to this terrible tragedy, RWU explores what appears to be the important precursors, the railroad atmosphere and culture that appear to be responsible for the wreck. Please read the article here below and attached.

The Lac Megantic Runaway Train Disaster
Why Did it Happen?

In the wake of the terrible tragedy that beset the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6th, the temptation is to look for a single factor, a single policy, or a single individual upon which to place the blame. Many in the town will be tempted to blame the notorious anti-union and lax-on-safety railroad CEO Ed Burkhart. Meanwhile Burkhart blamed the fire department and is now pointing fingers at the train’s engineer.

However, those who study the root causes of disasters like this one generally agree that they are months, if not years in the making, and are the combined result of a host of factors. And while any single factor may have been the major catalyst or trigger, a whole host of precursors more than likely led up to the disaster. These might well include the actions of Ed Burkhart as well as the engineer, but also include numerous other factors, such as single employee train operations, the advent of short lines and spinoffs, the poor safety record on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railroad, inspection exemptions for unit trains like the one involved; general maintenance and staffing issues on the MM&A, the deregulatory environment in Canada in recent years, and more.

And while the ongoing investigation may take months or even years before the investigation team reaches a final conclusion, it is safe to speculate that some or all of the factors listed here all contributed in some fashion to creating a powder keg that finally exploded in Lac Megantic the night of July 6th, 2013.

Ed Burkhart – MM&A CEO

MM&A CEO Ed Burkhart is a renegade in the rail industry. Vehemently anti-union and dictatorial, Burkhart gained notoriety with his first railroad, The Wisconsin Central where he was CEO from 1987 to 1999. During his reign there, he attempted single employee train crew operations, fought numerous union organizing drives, and had a poor safety record. In 1996, a similar spectacular train wreck involving hazardous materials occurred in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, complete with blazing fire balls and the town’s complete evacuation. After being removed by the WC Board in 1999, “Fast Eddie” went on to purchase the recently privatized railway in New Zealand, and did the same hatchet job on safety and staffing there. It would appear that his reckless, irresponsible behavior has continued at the MM&A. According to one source, “The modus operandi for all of Burkhardt’s adventures in railroading is to fire as many employees as possible, grind down the wages of the ones who remain, and maximize the profits for himself and his fellow investors.”

The MM&A Engineer

The engineer who was in charge of the train, Tom Harding, has more than 30 years experience on the railroad. Tom tied his train down for the night before departing for the hotel. What complicity he has in the events that would unfold that fateful night will be better known after the event recorder is analyzed. But we may never know if he set the appropriate number of handbrakes, as there is no software record of this activity and the cars that would have been hand-braked were at the head of the train, and these cars were completely destroyed in the inferno.

Unit Train Maintenance

Through special waivers, some unit trains that stay together as a “unit” and circulate from mine to mill or in this case from oil fill-up to oil load-out and back again in a cycle, are exempt from the scrutiny that other trains receive. It is possible that the brake shoes on the cars of the train were worn beyond a safe level, and/or the brake seals and gaskets were worn and subject to above average leakage of compressed air. A few carmen we’ve discussed this incident with raised questions about the train’s air brakes bleeding off in such a short time period after the engine was shut down. Potentially some of this might come out in the future investigation.

The MM&A Safety Record and Safety Culture

The accident has shined a spotlight on MMA's safety record. Over the past decade, the company has consistently recorded a much higher accident rate than the national average in the U.S., according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Last year, for instance, the railroad had 36.1 accidents per million miles traveled by its trains. The national average for 2012 was 14.6.

These statistics point to a railroad that is lax on safety as a matter of policy. So this outlook could easily have contributed to any failure on the part of the engineer to strictly follow the rules, knowing perhaps that the company tolerated or even encouraged “short cuts” to save time and money. It potentially contributed to a failure to: 1-- properly inspect the train at its initial terminal as well; and/or 2 -- properly inspect/repair the locomotive that was badly leaking oil upon arrival at the end of its run (which resulted in the locomotive fire); and/or 3 – take action when informed by the engineer that the locomotive had a serious oil leak which could have prevented the fire and eventual locomotive shut down around midnight.

Canadian Government Lack of Oversight and Regulation

According to the United Steelworkers of America (USW), the union that represents 75 employees at MM&A in Canada, in recent times, the government of Canada has taken a “laissez –fair” approach to transport operations.  “Over the years, the federal government has deregulated rail transport as well as the aviation industry” said Daniel Roy, United Steelworkers’ Quebec Director.

In fact, by the time the Mulroney government was finished with its reforms, the rail industry was deregulated, and companies had rewritten the safety rules. That launched an era of cost-cutting, massive lay-offs, and speed-ups on the job, and eventually, the full privatization of companies and rail-lines. The subsequent Liberal government completed the job by turning over what regulation remained to rail companies themselves. A report issued in 2007 by a safety group spelled out the result: Canada's rail system was a disaster in the waiting.

The rail carriers have been using old rail cars to ship the new Bakken oil, despite the fact that regulators warned the federal government they were unsafe, as far back as 20 years ago. A more recent report by a federal agency reminded the government that the cars could be "subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials." All of these warnings have been ignored.

Short Lines and Spinoffs

The rail line in question operated by the MM&A was previously owned by the Canadian Pacific in the late 1990s. The sale by the CP was part of the arrival of the so-called “short lines” in Canada, some of which consist of rail operations that were abandoned by large rail corporations. These “spin-offs” greatly benefitted the large railroads who were now able to shed the responsibility of operating less profitable lines while in many cases continuing to receive the more lucrative  “long haul”, since the short line delivers its loaded rail cars to the big railroad for forwarding.

These short lines do not have the resources and are not subject to scrutiny the way larger railroads like CP and CN are. Because short lines are often lightly used, the track, locomotives and other equipment are  is often not maintained to a level that is maintained by the larger, richer railroads.

Single Employee Train Crews

The MM&A had convinced the federal government in 2012 that it could safely handle trains with a single employee. Transport Canada gave the railroad the green light in late 2012 to reduce staffing aboard road trains. (Apparently the carrier had previously been running trains with a single employee south of the border). Common sense dictates that two heads are better than one, that two sets of eyes and ears see and hear more, and that two fatigued employees at the end of a long day in the middle of the night will remember and respond better than just one. It is debatable to just what extent the single employee crew role played in the wreck, but it is safe to say that in all likelihood, a traditional crew of both engineer and conductor would have performed the securement of the train in a more efficient and safe manner.

Securing Trains on A Steep Grade

Just west of where the train was left standing is apparently relatively level terrain. Had the train broke free and ran away here, it would have almost certainly have caused no damage whatsoever and rolled to a stop at a slow speed. Why then was it standard practice to leave an extremely heavy and dangerous loaded oil train at the top of a steep grade when it was not necessary to do so? Did the company stand to save money on cab ride or other fees? Whatever the case, there is no excuse for regularly leaving a train unattended on such a steep grade. Railroad property is almost universally easily accessible to pedestrians, and on a Saturday night, it is feasible that young revelers could knock off the train’s hand and/or air brakes, setting it free to roll.


While it can be endlessly debated which of the above factors played a “key role” or a “major” or “minor” role in the train wreck, what we can plainly see is a disturbing pattern by which rail corporations, oil companies, big business and their political allies have all combined to create an irresponsible and unsafe situation where corporate profits are placed well ahead of public and worker safety. Deregulation, lax oversight, short staffing, inadequate legally mandated rest, reductions in train crew size, poor maintenance, corner cutting and more are the root causes that ultimately result in train wrecks.  Unless and until this trend is halted and reversed, we are bound to see more cataclysmic train wrecks of this nature. We simply cannot trust the safety of the public and the safety of railroad workers to the rail corporations, big or small, in Canada or the U.S.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dear RWU Members & Supporters:
It is exciting news that both BLET President Dennis Pierce and UTU (SMART) President Mike Futhey have "broken their silence" on the issue of single employee train crews in the wake of Lac Megantic. In their efforts to halt single employee operations they certainly have RWU's full support. Nevertheless, RWU reserves the right to criticize, to coax and cajole, and to prod them to move this vital campaign forward! Please read the attached article.

A Discussion of the BLET and UTU
Response to Lac Megantic

On July 6th, an unmanned oil tanker train, that had been operated engineer-only and secured by him, ran away from its securement, hurtled into the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, derailing, exploding, reducing a significant portion of the town to rubble, killing approximately 50 people and injuring countless more. Within two days, the engineer was being publicly scapegoated by the railroad’s CEO and now faces criminal charges. Two weeks later, on July 19th, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers &Trainmen (BLET) President Dennis Pierce issued an official statement on the subject of the Lac Megantic tragedy and the pressing issue of single-employee train crews. Perhaps in response to this statement, United Transportation Union (UTU) President Mike Futhey issued a statement on August 8th, addressing the same issue. RWU wholeheartedly supports Pierce’s position that the BLET spearhead “a nationwide effort to end single-person operations” and Futhey’s stand that we honor the victims “by fighting for change”.

However, we do take some issue with their delayed response, the contradictions between past deeds and present words, and their vision of the forms this fight may take. Given the stakes involved for us as rail workers, as well as the public, validated by the horrifying magnitude of this tragedy, we feel that a few constructively critical observations are in order.

Pierce cites “respect for the grieving” as the reasoning behind not commenting on this tragedy for almost two weeks before stating, “I can no longer remain silent”. RWU believes rail labor should quickly make its voice heard whenever such an important issue makes national news and the public’s attention is focused on the question. It is not often that the public notices the railroad. When it does, it offers us an invaluable opportunity to get our point of view across. Ed Burkhart (President of the MM&A Railroad) certainly got his view out there in real time. Likewise we need to get the truth in front of the news media and before the public. To their credit, the Steelworkers union in Canada quickly spoke out in defense of the engineer and condemned MM&A’s actions.

Futhey takes credit for “submitting petitions to governmental agencies and by talking directly to the carriers”, only to lament that, “Unfortunately our demands for safety regulations, either arbitrarily or voluntarily have fallen on deaf ears”. We wholeheartedly applaud both Pierce and Futhey when they take the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to task for their non-regulation of railroad safety when it comes to single-employee crew operations. The FRA has the power to enact regulations to make railroad operations safer and is quick to do so when employee mistakes make the news. However, prior to this tragedy the FRA had been virtually silent on the subject of single-employee crews. Every railroader (whether they be rank-and-file or elected union leaders), the public and our congressional representatives should be constantly asking the FRA why they are opposed to making railroad operations safer by regulating crew size.

Pierce Invites SMART (UTU) to Join the Effort

RWU agrees with Pierce when he invites the UTU to join the BLET to fight single employee train crews. However, we cannot ignore the past struggles for unity between the two unions on this issue. It was January 31st, 2006 when the UTU and BLET presidents linked arms and declared “we will never tolerate single employee crews!” Unfortunately this rare unified defiant stand would have a limited shelf life. The next year the BNSF and the BLET reached an on-property agreement to allow RCO outside of the confines of the yard and expand its use to the road (a key component the carriers seek to be able to employ conductor-less trains on the road). And who would be the proud operator of the RCO box on a single employee train? The BLET represented engineer would. A few days later UTU President Paul Thompson wrote a scathing letter to BLET President Paul Sorrow accusing the BLET of back stabbing treachery and a failure to live up to the agreement to oppose single employee train operations. That was the end of the short-lived agreement between the two unions on the question of single-employee trains. It’s worth noting that the general chairman at this time of the BLET’s BNSF General Committee that negotiated this language and sold it to his members as great “job security” was Dennis Pierce. Meanwhile, the UTU proceeded to allow single-employee RCO yard operations. RWU will continue to publicly demand that the two unions unite once and for all behind this life-and-death issue, and put the interests of engineers and trainmen ahead of suicidal, self-interest driven jurisdictional squabbles.

Burkhart Runs Single-Employee Trains “because he can”

Brother Pierce tells us that Ed Burkhart, CEO of the MM&A, runs trains with a single-employee “because he can”. Doesn’t this beg the question, “Why can he?” He “can” because the unions and the carriers have negotiated the language that opens the door to allow for this practice. For much of the last decade the only voice in the wilderness that has been actively opposing single employee crews has been RWU. He “can” because the unions have done next to nothing to educate the public about the dangers that communities, like Lac Megantic, face with the single-employee operation of trains. He “can” because the unions unconditionally accept the terms of engagement that keep us in a virtual straightjacket for any meaningful fight for safety. He “can” because the regulatory agencies are more concerned with the carriers’ needs and interests. The fact that the MM&A has been running single-employee trains south of the border for some time no doubt pressured the Canadian government to allow a waiver for the MM&A to do the same thing on the other side of the border in 2012, thus setting the stage for the tragedy in Lac Megantic. Burkhart, like any other railroad carrier CEO, can run trains with a single-employee train crew – if the public, the government, society and the workforce let them. Our job as a union is to stop this from happening!

It’s worth noting here one more explanation. He “can” because for decades the unions have done virtually nothing to challenge the attacks on our wages and working conditions that escalated with the proliferation of “short line” railroads, most of them spun off from the major carriers. At worst the unions and contractual agreements were eliminated with the stroke of a pen and the shuffling of a few papers. At best the unions remained to sanction and legitimize these attacks or managed to recoup what was left of their lost dues base once the dirty deeds were done. The “short lines” have proven to be useful as the testing grounds for the future attacks on the major carriers’ workforce. Without a national standard of wages and working conditions, we will continue on this spiraling death race to the bottom.  

Why Did It Take So Long?

Brother Pierce has been the BLET president for four years, while Brother Futhey has been the UTU president for six years. Over that time they both have remained virtually silent on the whole question of single-employee train operations. RWU sent certified letters regarding this issue to both the BLET & UTU presidents in the spring of 2011. We received no response. We tried again in the fall, asking the two union heads to make a public statement against single employee crews. It is very telling that neither union president saw fit to take a position that 90% or more of their members would say is a very important issue. We believe it is sad that valuable time has been lost when we could have been educating the public across the continent to enlist their support in actively fighting the scourge of single-employee train crews.

Their Strategy to Fight Single Employee Crews

Pierce and Futhey are now taking a long overdue, defiant stand against single-employee train crews, but they want to limit us to just two ways to do it: legislatively or at the bargaining table. Although a campaign to convince Congress to act against single-employee crews could possibly succeed (especially in the aftermath of Lac Megantic) it must be pursued vigorously, immediately and with the active participation of rank-and-file railroaders and public organizations. And while we might possibly be able to bargain language insisting on two person crews (very unlikely), there is so much more we can and must do.

What Else Can Be Done?

First, we need to educate rank and file railroad workers that the carriers have in fact desired and have proposed operating trains with a single employee. We should alert all rails that single crew operations in the yard with RCO take place all the time now. We need to build upon the anger and resentment that railroad workers feel towards this deadly practice and tap that energy for action.

It is past time we brought this issue to our central labor bodies to alert the entire labor movement to the prospects of single-employee crews. Countless environmental and community groups must be enlisted to be our allies in this struggle, as none would want to see single employee crews putting their neighborhoods and this nation’s land, air and water as risk. We can pressure the carriers to back down from the deadly single-employee crew idea through pickets and rallies, petitions and letter writing, phone call and emails blitzes. We need to show the rail carriers that if they attempt to implement single-employee train crews, it ain’t gonna work!

We applaud Brother Pierce and Brother Futhey for speaking out publicly against single-employee train crews. It is up to all of us to get behind the campaign to stop single-employee crews, to hold all of our union leaders accountable, and demand that they commit the resources to mount a creative and militant campaign to stop the carriers’ plan for single-employee train crews in its tracks. But it has been over two months now since the union presidents issued their statements of outrage at single employee crews. Other than President Pierce's bold statement about a national campaign, neither union has taken action. Where is the campaign, the leaflets, the bumper stickers, posters and flyers? What have the members been asked to do to get involved in this campaign? How do we plan to impress the rail carriers of our determination and dedication to preventing single employee train crews? While we wait for Pierce and Futhey to back up their tough rhetoric with real action, RWU will continue to advocate against this dangerous practice anywhere, anytime, in any way that we can.  

PO Box 1053
Salem IL 62881

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Labor Day Message From Railroad Workers United

Labor Day: A Time for Action!

Dear Railroad Sisters & Brothers:

Whether you are off work or on the job on Monday, please take the time to honor, remember and celebrate Labor Day. This is our day! So much of what we workers take for granted today -- overtime pay, holiday pay, vacations, sick leave, workers’ comp and FELA, railroad retirement, safer working conditions, the basic 8-hour day, seniority and more – only came about because workers came together, organized and fought for these things collectively. If it were not for our solidarity, we would have none of the above, and there certainly would be no such thing as Labor Day itself.

But Labor Day has mostly become a day for picnics and barbeques, political stumping and speech making, posturing and "remembering" our heritage. All pretty boring stuff really. But what if we put some life into Labor Day? What if we called for joint actions by the various sectors of the working class? What if we showed the employing class that we are not simply going to "honor and remember" on Labor Day? What if we were to picket, to demonstrate, to strike and to occupy?

The fast food workers are pointing the way forward. As some of the most exploited, underpaid and disrespected members of our class, fast food workers are finally rising up against their wretched working conditions. They are demanding more. Their heroic actions point the way forward for the rest of labor, railroad workers included. The general walk-out by thousands of workers in 58 cities across the country last week was a spectacular display of the power of labor, the power of solidarity. This singular action has dramatically increased the pride and confidence of every single fast food worker in the nation. From this initial uprising we just might see a sustained and developed organization of fast food workers that is ready to take risks, ready to fight, and be ready to win in the months and years ahead.

Not only is it the job of every worker and every union member to get behind this struggle, maybe it’s time for all of us to do the same thing. Let’s stop crying and whining, bitching and moaning about our jobs. Let’s stop waiting for some politician, some government agency or union official to solve our problems for us. Let’s take the bull by the horns and using the example of the fast food workers, rise up collectively, make our demands known, and let our power be realized.

So on this Labor Day, you will see lots of American flags flying. You will hear lots of politicians bucking for your vote. And you will see lots of hot dogs frying on the grill. But please remember, all this has little to do with the true spirit of Labor Day. This day is really about working people and our struggle – through strikes, boycotts, picket lines, sit-ins, occupations and more – to further the cause of the working class. RWU is proud to be part of that proud tradition of working people fighting back against corporate power. We invite you to join us in the fight. Solidarity forever!

Ron Kaminkow
RWU General Secretary

“We need to have faith in each other. We are in precisely the same position. We depend absolutely on each other. We know that without solidarity, nothing is possible, and that with solidarity, nothing is impossible.”

Eugene V. Debs, Founder of the American Railway Union