By Hieronymous - LibCom.Org, September 30, 2015
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.
In his 1914 poem, “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg called the city a “Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler.” Others have called it the “Rome of Railroads,” as in all railroads lead to Chicago. It’s the biggest, busiest and most complex rail hub in the world, with at least 1,300 passengers and freight trains passing through it daily. It remains the central node of the North American rail transportation system. Despite the city’s vast size, you can’t visit a neighborhood without seeing traces of how railroads developed the city – in the process connected the eastern U.S. with all of the West through this major portal. And it’s not just railroads, as barges, tractor-trailers, and bellies of planes make Chicago a hub that ranks just behind Singapore and Hong Kong for the world’s highest intermodal volume – not to mention the pipelines that carry liquid commodities into the city.
So Chicago couldn’t have been more fitting for the third Railroad Safety Conference. I arrived the day before, Friday, September 18th to help prepare. From O’Hare Airport I took the CTA "L" Blue Line to the Loop downtown, strolled over to Millennium Park and immediately discovered it was built a decade ago on a steel superstructure over Illinois Central’s original Chicago rail yard. An RWU member met me at Union Station and gave me a tour of its once grand interior, detailing its demise. Until 1969 Chicago had six intercity passenger rail terminals; Union Station is the only one that is in any way close to its original form.
The conference location at the union hall of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) couldn’t have been more appropriate either. In response to McCarthyism inspired raids by competing unions, UE left the CIO in 1949. By 1950 eleven unions left or were expelled from the CIO; only two remain today, UE and the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Both remain strong unions, with democratic governance, and have led some of the most inspiring recent struggles. For the UE, it was the week-long occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Goose Island in Chicago in December 2008. For the ILWU it has been the willingness to take political stands, like the work stoppage on May Day 2008 when all 29 ports on the West Coast ceased operating for the day.
The conference, titled Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment, carried on the agenda of the previous two conferences in California and Washington State with around 80 in attendance. Carl Rosen, President of UE, gave us a warm welcome to the hall, then RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow gave a brief history of RWU and mentioned the recent defeat of a union proposal for single-person crews at BNSF. Conference attendees introduced themselves, showing how far some had traveled to attend, from as far as New York, Washington DC, Seattle, San Francisco and Quebec, Canada; in addition, each cluster of tables came up with their goals for the conference. Most concerned educating affected communities about the realities of fossil fuel transport, especially rail, as well as upholding the principle of keeping energy resources “in the ground.” Next RWU members gave two sessions about the safety concerns of railroad workers. Included in the first were Single Employee Train Crews, Teamwork, Chronic Fatigue and Scheduling. In the second they were Long & Heavy Trains, Track Maintenance, and Rail Safety Programs. A guest, Michael Termini from the Government Accountability Project, talked about legal protections for whistleblowers.