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RailCon15: Chicagoland Conference Reflections

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.

After lunch we facilitated the Supply Chain Inquiry Workshop, the intention of which is to model how cross-sectoral solidarity might follow the entire energy commodity chain, from the extraction fields of fracked crude oil all the way to the East Coast’s largest refinery in Philadelphia – passing through Chicago if transported by rail. After showing some maps of the routes, participants gathered in five breakout groups by sector: oil extraction/pipeline workers, truckers, railroad workers in both BSNF and CSX, and refinery workers (maritime workers should have been included too, but due to confusion this sector was covered by the refinery group). The workshop activity was based on a hypothetical strike by USW Local 10-1 refinery workers at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions plant (whose contract actually expired at the beginning of this month) and how the other sectors on the supply chain could support it. From the nationwide USW refinery workers strike earlier in 2015, the demands were the same. Here’s what was presented, from an actual USW Local 5 striking worker interviewed at the Tesoro Refinery in Martinez, California earlier this year:

USW refinery worker wrote:

Your standard shift is 12 hours a day, four days on the day shift, four days off, then four days on the night shift. But if there’s an emergency or we’re short-staffed, they’ll keep you on for an 18-hour day, or they’ll call you in for a fifth day in a row. At least in my unit they almost always call you in for a fifth day and a sometimes a sixth.

The refinery workers strike demands – real in the USW strike earlier this year and imagined in this workshop – are identical to the safety concerns of railroad workers. They’re actually identical to most industrial workers the world over. The best slogan coming out of the workshop was an RWU steering committee member who said, “Their strike is ours!"

Here are the graphics and instructions that went to each of the 5 groups as part of the workshop:

    Extraction/Pipeline Workers


    Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad Workers

    CSX Railroad Workers

    Refinery & Maritime Workers

The workshop group hypothetically getting strike support among their fellow BNSF railroaders, as well as other sectors, who transport crude from the fracking fields of the Williston Basin to the rail yards of Chicago came up with these ideas:

The group imagining how they, as PES refinery workers in Philadelphia, could extend their own strike came up with this:

The next workshop was Chicago Area Organizing Efforts & Community Mapping, where Chicago activists guided us through the concerns regarding crude oil trains, especially those from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota that either are destined for Chicago or pass through on their way east, and how community members can join an interactive mapping process. It finished with a hands-on activity with some supersize maps and markers for participants to add data to them.

The final workshop was themed around Building the Labor-Community Alliance and Paul Bigman from Seattle walked us through the process of finding allies to support our struggles, listening to their concerns, and building further solidarity to strengthen our struggles. His examples of success of environmental activists finding common cause with industrial workers was truly inspiring.

The workshops ended with Affinity Clusters, where people broke into three groups to – hopefully – attempt to build lasting networks to continue working together into the future. The three were Supply Chains, Chicagoland Issues, and Global Issues. In the latter, participants discussed the support work for railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie who are defendants for the disaster in Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada that killed 47 people.

We finished the day with a spirited singing of Solidarity Forever, before 30 of us continued meeting and discussing over dinner in Greektown for a sumptuous feast.

The next day, 25 of us continued with a guided tour the railroad infrastructure around the south side of Chicagoland – and into Indiana – meeting in Blue Island Junction and visiting yards at Rail Central, Indiana Harbor (IHB) Belt Blue Island Yard, stopping at an overlook to see Union Pacific Yard Center, IHB Gibson Yard, then going by the BP Whiting Refinery and the KCBX Terminal where pet coke is collected for transshipment around the world.

This tour just scratched the surface of the complexity of Chicagoland’s logistics infrastructure, but in many ways was a perfect overview of the massive scale of this central node of North America’ transportation system. Like the goal of Rail Safety Conference expressed by conference attendees, it left me better educated about how fossil fuels – and other commodities – traverse Chicago’s immense rail transportation network. More importantly, it showed how we all live along supply chains and how our safety is fully dependent on the safety of the workers up and down the line. Acting in solidarity unites us because their safety is our safety; their struggle is our struggle.

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