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Report on Oil Train Response 2015 Crude Awakening Network Founding Conference

By Fritz Edler - Railroad Workers United, November 16, 2015

I attended the Oil Train Response Conference in Pittsburgh as a representative of RWU under assignment from the RWU Steering Committee.  I was the only railroader present.  The conference was pulled together primarily by Forestethics and Frac Tracker.  The goal was to create the first continent wide network coordinating opposition to the shipment of volitile oil  shipments by rail, although they were never too careful to distinquish between volitile and non volitile shipments.  There were about 250 attendees, and a broad representation of organizations including a fair representation from Canada.

The conference was mostly in the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center, except for the Saturday evening Keynote presentation. 

The first day was hosted by the Heinz Endowments and entitled "Community Risks Solutions Conference.  It consisted mainly of panels of recognized experts and activists (program is appended).

The next two days were "Training" for "Oil Train" activists.  I was able to present a railroader perspective in a breakout section, although it was as minimal a participation as we could have been allowed without having no presentation at all.  The presentation was well received.  More on that below.

There were pros and cons for railroad workers at the conference.  On balance, it's a good thing and an opportunity.

It is clear that across the continent, there are people actively working to prevent unsafe shipments of oil by rail.  Many of them are doing very good work.  It is equally clear that there are many things most of them do not understand about railroads and our role on them as workers.

RWU had many friends in attendance at this conference.  It was solely due to the hard work of RWU members in working with these folks and others in regional safety conferences that the job of winning them over to understanding the importance of an alliance with railroad workers has a chance.  I would like to think that that work has now been furthered.

Coming out of the Conference, there is now a continentwide network of activists on this issue that will coordinate and cooperate and probably meet again regularly.  They have hit the ground running by coordinating continentwide phone conferences beginning on December 4, 2015.

The Pros:

Railroaders probably don't fully appreciate the danger to which the industry is currently exposing us.  We're used to doing tough and dangerous things and most probably lump Bakken/Shale/Tar Sands Oil in with all that.  That needs to change and drawing the attention to the matter is good.  As was pointed out at the Conference, railroad Unions spearheaded the "Right to Know" laws that are on the books that are some of the few protections we have. 

Volitile oil shipments are fundamentally dangerous.  Frankly, no matter how safe and professional our brothers and sisters are in operations, true safety for Bomb trains is out of our control by railroad policy.

So a nationwide Crude Awakening Network helps us.

Many of the activists there have either attended RWU safety conferences or have favorable impressions based on what they've heard.  While our world is still really really alien to them, many of them have already made efforts at including rail workers and including consideration of rail workers even when they can't find partners in actions.

Forestethics and their partners did a model job of organizing the conference which ran smoothly and encompassed a truly huge amount of material.  For those who don't know, Forestethics was an endorser of and participant in our Rail Safety Conferences.

The Cons:

There was never one mention from the podium of workers or rail workers during the entire conference leading up to the panel I was on, in a breakout on the last day.  Every possible other stakeholder, including the Carriers, were either on panels or their concerns discussed. 

The overwhelming sentiment of the attendees was that oil shipments are bad.  No distinction made.

The tee shirt for the conference says only "Stop Oil Trains".  I made the point to Forestethics organizers that railroaders have been hauling regular oil by rail for probably 150 years with a safety record that is the envy of transportation.  I also pointed out that it is unreasonable to demand of railroaders that they alone be singled out to subsidize a social goal (ending reliance on and dangers of oil products).  If it's the greater good for society, then the whole society needs to bear the cost both economically and socially and not expect only railroaders (not truckers, not pipelines, not maritime) to bear that cost for everyone.  My impression was that they were somewhat embarrassed by this, but since they still fundamentally believe they aren't really engaging railroaders with their slogans, it isn't a big deal to them.

There are participants, a minority, who are solely focused on Direct Action (acts of civil disobedience).  It wasn't a big debate but it did come up in conversations and workshops.  This has already presened a dangerous situation for the RWU in the past, where some activists have proposed dangerous direct actions that endanger both themselves and our coworkers.

Many of the participants believe this issue is so important that they want badly to up the ante in some way.  That will continue to be a problem for us until we truly convince them that actions ON the railroad, unless they are very carefully examined, are bad ideas both in terms of safety and in terms of building the broadest possible coalition around safety.

On Saturday night, Marilaine Sevard from Lac-Mégantic gave a keynote presentation.  I hadn't met her and she hadn't been part of the meetings of the Citizens Committee in Lac-Mégantic that I knew about, but I did know she had participated in a Albany meeting about Oil trains (That's where all the Bakken that was going through Lac-Mégantic now goes).  I was somewhat afraid she would have a strictly anti train perspective but it wasn't true.   She gave a powerful presentation and in most regards it was in line with everything we knew about the organized folks in Lac-Mégantic, including rejection of the scapegoating of Tom Harding.

I distributed the RWU position papers on Long and Heavy Trains, Track and Infrastructure, Single Person Crews, Rejection of "blame the worker" safety programs and against scapegoating (we will need to discuss how to do this in the future because it's expensive to do the printing piecemeal).  I also made copies and put out English language translation of the Nantes town council resolution that condemned the railroad and rejected the blame the worker approach.

I participated with the Canadians in their region break out with a special focus on building a conference there if possible.  The rest of the Canadians were impressed by RWU participation in Lac-Mégantic and sorry they hadn't participated themselves.  They will certainly not miss again since they now have direct communication with Marilaine Sevard.  In general, I'd say the Canadians are more concerned about First Nations than just about anything else.

Despite my unhappiness with the lack of recognition of the place of railroad workers, the reaction to my part of the railroad industry break-out session was very well received and generated a lot of discussion.  It was unfortunate that it was not arranged so that the entire conference could participate, but they had it scheduled simultaniously with two other sessions.  It's tempting to think that Forestethics purposely downgraded our participation but I think it is really that they wanted to do "everything".  I also think they as a leadership, don't think we represent an important stakeholder.

I finally was able to determine that I could present a slide show.  I quickly put together a presentation that focused on a combination of what the RWU is and does, why it's a mistake to discount RR workers and what can be done about that.  20 slides, including several on the action at Lac-Mégantic, focusing on how that community understands better the role of railroaders...In particular, there was interest in the slide where I outlined what groups could do to promote the alliance between environmental activists and railroaders.

In conclusion, it's good we were there, good that we presented and good that a continentwide network is coming together.  Unfortunately we have a long way to go to get these activists to understand how to build the broadest possible movement against unsafe train operations.

After the conference, there has been some evidence that our participation has made some difference in the way at least some of the activists have changed their public work.  Time will tell, but we will soon see whether our proactive work bears fruit in building the strongest largest coalition against dangerous oil shipments by rail and for rail safety in general. 

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.

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