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Railroad Workers United calls Chicago rail safety conference

By Maggie Trowe - The Militant, September 14, 2015; image by Jon Flanders

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.

Railroad Workers United will sponsor a one-day conference titled “Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment” Sept. 19 in Chicago. The RWU is organizing the event with labor and environmental groups, including United Steelworkers Local 1527, Frack Free Illinois and the Southeast Environmental Task Force. It is a follow-up to earlier conferences in Richmond, California, and Olympia, Washington.

“The 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster put a spotlight on how rail bosses put profits ahead of safety and made these conferences necessary and possible,” Mark Burrows, a steering committee member of Railroad Workers United and delegate in SMART TD Local 1433 union, told the Militant in a phone interview Sept. 1.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned runaway 72-car Montreal, Main and Atlantic train carrying volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, destroying the downtown area and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the soil and lake there. The catastrophe commanded worldwide attention and spurred concern about the dangers posed by the massive increase of North American oil production and its transport by train through the centers of cities and towns across the continent.

Government, bosses blame workers Government, bosses blame workers

Less widely known is the effort by the Canadian government and rail capitalists to pin the blame for the disaster on two rail workers.

On March 12, 2014, locomotive engineer Tom Harding and train controller Richard Labrie, both members of the United Steelworkers union, along with Jean Demaitre, MMA manager of train operations, were arrested by Quebec provincial police — Harding by a SWAT team at gunpoint. They were charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death and face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

“RWU supports the Tom Harding defense against the serious and ominous charges against him,” Burrows said. “This case will have a place in the conference. Not only rail workers, but any worker in an industry with the potential for a serious accident with devastating consequences should be alarmed by the implications.”

Burrows blames the MMA and the Canadian government, which granted a special exemption to the now-defunct company to operate with a one-person “crew,” for the disaster.

The MMA train was parked on a slope pointing downhill toward the town, as per company practice. After a fire broke out on a locomotive, local firefighters shut down the lead engine, inadvertently releasing the train’s air brakes. The hand brakes Harding had set then failed and the train rolled into town, derailing and exploding and turning downtown Lac-Mégantic into an inferno.

When the company manager called Harding at his motel to let him know the locomotive had caught fire, he said he asked if he should return to the train. He was told to go back to sleep. After the explosion he went to the scene and risked his life helping firefighters uncouple cars that had not yet ignited, preventing them from exploding. Many workers in the town regard him as a hero.

A Sept. 8 court hearing in Lac-Mégantic will set the date for the trials. Defenders of the framed-up workers will attend, and invite others to do so.

“The tragedy of Lac-Mégantic vividly illustrates the stakes involved for all of us,” Burrows said. “The way the bosses have pushed the union and safety protections back is responsible for overworked, fatigued, understaffed train crews operating ridiculously long and heavy trains with deadly commodities. It’s a life-and-death issue for us as workers as well as for the surrounding communities.”

There have been at least 10 more derailments of oil trains, most leading to fires or explosions, since the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Workshops at the conference will address single-employee train crews and the hazards they pose for workers, community and the environment; crew fatigue, “task overload” and the need for well-rested train crews; and efforts by citizens and environmental groups in the Chicago area to confront the dangers posed by trains moving through their communities.

“All over Chicago long oil trains run through every day,” Burrows said. “Some groups are mapping out the routes and the surrounding areas that would be affected if a train derailed or exploded to let people know that, even if they’re a few blocks away from the tracks, they’re still in danger.”

The conference begins at 8 a.m. Sept. 19 at the United Electrical union hall, 37 S. Ashland Ave. For more information or to register, visit

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