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Framed-up rail workers win support in Quebec town

By John Studer - The Militant, September 21, 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.

LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec — After less that 15 minutes, Judge François Tôth ordered further delay in the Canadian government’s frame-up campaign against rail workers Thomas Harding and Richard Labrie, as well as company operating manager Jean DeMaître. They are threatened with life in prison, as scapegoats for the July 6, 2013, disaster where a crewless Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil rolled down a grade, derailed and burst into flame, destroying the downtown here and killing 47 people.

Tôth set a Dec. 1 court “management hearing” where lawyers for the government and the defendants would discuss potential witnesses and possible trial dates, and debate a government proposal to move the trial from Lac-Mégantic to Sherbrooke, a college town some 100 miles away.

“The crown doesn’t want the trial in Lac-Mégantic,” Thomas Walsh, attorney for Harding, told the Militant, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and other media after the hearing. “But it is the people here who were affected. They are in the best position to judge. All they want is justice.”

And many know Harding, who has been running trains through the area for years. They think the wrong people are in the dock.

“The big bosses should be charged. They’re the ones that gave the orders to the workers who had to carry them out,” Sylvie Carrier, an auxiliary nurse at the local hospital and member of the Quebec nurses union, told Communist League member John Steele from Montreal and this reporter as we went door to door showing people coverage on the defense campaign from the Militant and asking them what they thought.

“Tom Harding doesn’t deserve this, he isn’t guilty of anything,” said Françoise Roy, owner of the Passion Chocolat shop a few hundred yards from the center of the explosion. “Most of the population here thinks like me. He has slept in the inn here on runs for years. The directors of the MMA have to take the responsibility. We have to fight for justice.”

Workers said similar things at the motel where we stayed and at various restaurants, including the rebuilt Musi-Cafe restaurant, where 27 people died and the building was destroyed in the disaster.

“Lac-Mégantic is behind Tom Harding,” said Passion Chocolat server Aline Savard.

Workers have stake in fighting frame-up

The fight against the frame-up has substantial stakes for rail workers and the entire working class.

The 2013 disaster was bound to happen. In search of profits, rail bosses have been pushing to run trains with ever-smaller crews. While it was normal for a train to operate with a caboose on the back and a five-person crew 30 years ago, today the caboose is long gone and crew sizes are two and sometimes one.

The Canadian government’s Transport Canada gave Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway a special dispensation to run cargo, including crude oil, with only one worker on the train.

The workday on many rail lines has been lengthened to 12 hours. Schedules are erratic. Fatigue is rampant. Track inspectors have been cut and repairs postponed. Train lengths have grown.

Harding and Labrie are backed by their union, the United Steelworkers, which has raised funds for their defense. Literature on the disaster, the conditions facing rail workers and the defense effort are available on the websites of the Transportation Division of the SMART union, which organizes rail workers in the U.S.; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen division of the Teamsters; and the Tom Harding Defense Fund, a site put up by a former co-worker of Harding who used to make the Lac-Mégantic run and now works for Amtrak in the Albany area.

Since the disaster, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic declared bankruptcy. The Canadian state chose not to file charges against MMA’s bosses.

The $72 billion Fortress Investment Group has taken over the railroad, renamed it Central Maine and Quebec, and restarted operation. It says it will run timber products, chemicals and fertilizers, grain and “energy products and fuels.” The tracks are being relaid right through the downtown area leveled two years ago. The company says it won’t ship hazardous materials like volatile crude “until at least Jan. 1, 2016.”

Workers in the area are organizing. Noting that the company’s tracks are riddled with rotting ties and torn up spikes, one group has begun to circulate a petition demanding the city bar all rail transport of hazardous material. They took us for a walk on the tracks and we could see the dangerously eroded ties for ourselves.

“We started petitioning a little over a week ago,” committee leader André Blais told us when we met with him and four other activists. “We’ve got well over 1,000 signatures.” The official population of Lac-Mégantic is 6,036.

“We are looking toward organizing a public march in October,” he said.

Harding’s attorney Walsh will attend the Sept. 19 Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment conference in Chicago that is being organized by Railroad Workers United and a number of area environmental groups. The conference plans to discuss the Lac-Mégantic disaster and the witch-hunt against Harding, organizer Mark Burrows told the Militant.

John Steele contributed to this article.

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