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Richard LaBrie

An Open Letter to Our Allies in the Fight for Safe Rails and a Sustainable Environment

Open Letter - By Railroad Workers United, June 7, 2017

No More Lac-Mégantics – Drop the Charges

July 6th marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning in early September this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers.

Some of us focus on how dangerous this kind of cargo is. Trains carrying volatile crude are called “Bomb Trains” for a reason. Some of us focus more on rail safety, no matter what or who is on the train. We push for safer work schedules and big enough train crews to handle an unusual situation or an emergency. Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

You’d expect railroaders to point the finger at management. But we’re not the only ones. Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. Instead railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie will be on trial this fall in Quebec. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

Railroad Workers United is going to mark the Lac-Mégantic anniversary wherever we are. We’ll stand in solidarity with the people of Lac-Mégantic like we have for four years, and talk about rail safety. That’s who we are. But we’ll make sure to point out that scapegoating two railroad workers for this tragedy will make railroads and communities across the continent less safe.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

Justice for Lac-Mégantic requires Dropping the Charges Against Harding & Labrie

Sign on to this appeal! - Contact: (202) 798-3327 | info@railroadworkersunited.org

Gov’t prepares trial of framed-up Quebec rail workers

By John Steele - The Militant, February 20, 2017

At a Jan. 26-27 hearing here, Superior Court judge Gaétan Dumas began to set the stage for the September trials of framed-up union locomotive engineer Tom Harding and dispatcher Richard Labrie, along with Jean Demaitre, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway manager.

The rail workers are being framed by the government for the July 2013 derailment and explosion of a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic crude oil train in downtown Lac-Mégantic, a city of 6,000 near the Quebec-Maine border. The disaster killed 47 people and leveled the town center. All three are charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence and could face life in prison if convicted. Harding and Labrie are members of United Steelworkers Local 1976.

The judge ruled that the bankrupt and dissolved railroad, which has no assets or legal counsel, will be tried separately.

“The prosecution has absolutely no intention of going after the MMA,” Thomas Walsh, one of Harding’s lawyers, told the Militant Jan. 30. “They want to go after Tom Harding. The charges against the MMA are window dressing.”

An exposé in the Toronto Globe and Mail and the official report of the Transportation Safety Board have made it crystal clear that it was the railway bosses’ profit-driven disregard for safety, and complicity of the federal government agency Transport Canada, that were responsible for the disaster.

Under a strict Montreal, Maine and Atlantic policy to save time and money, the Globe showed, Harding was forbidden from activating the train’s automatic air brakes, which would have prevented the parked train from rolling into Lac-Mégantic that night. And Transport Canada gave the MMA approval to run their dangerous oil trains with a bare bones “crew” of one.

Separating the railroad out for its own trial is reasonable, Charles Shearson, who spoke for Harding at the hearing, told the Militant. “The jury will have more focus on the trial of Harding and the others.”

“We believe the judge should call the prosecutors’ bluff and hold the trial of the MMA before the trial of Harding, Labrie and Demaitre,” Walsh said.

Shearson said another pretrial hearing set for April will address a motion by Walsh to enter the Transportation Safety Board report and supporting documents as evidence, and to let the defense call board officials to question them.

Robert Bellefleur, spokesperson for the Citizens’ and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Mégantic, which is campaigning for the government to build a rail bypass around the town, attended the hearing to show the widespread support for Harding in Lac-Mégantic.

Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny, a writer who is working on a book about the disaster, also came. “One cannot but wonder how justice can be totally served in such a tragedy, when only low-ranking employees are on the stand for the death of 47 people,” she told the Militant. “Those who gave the orders, set the rules and ran the training — those who own the company — are all off limits, holed up in United States.”

“The fight against the frame-up of Harding and Labrie is important for working people across the country and elsewhere,” said Philippe Tessier, Communist League candidate for mayor of Montreal, who attended the hearing in solidarity. “Defeating this frame-up will strengthen the ongoing fight by rail workers everywhere who are struggling for rail safety, for themselves and all those who live and work along the tracks.”

Messages in support of Harding and Labrie can be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9.

Bosses’ profit drive caused Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

By John Steele - The Militant, February 6, 2017

“We have a very strong defense, which will show that Harding was not criminally responsible for what happened and get at the truth of who is really responsible for the disaster at Lac-Mégantic,” Thomas Walsh, attorney for locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, told the Militant Jan. 5. Because of continual delays, which have stretched over three years, Walsh and Harding had considered demanding the charges be tossed out. “But the people of Lac-Mégantic and Harding want and deserve a trial,” he said.

Harding and train controller Richard Labrie — both members of United Steelworkers Local 1976 — and Jean Demaitre, operations manager for the now defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, face frame-up charges of 47 counts of criminal negligence in relation to the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster that killed 47 people and burned out the downtown core. If convicted, the three could face life in prison.

Walsh said that at the upcoming Jan. 26-27 court hearing in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he will demand a court order to give the defense access to the original reports and documents that the federal Transportation Safety Board used to prepare its report, as well as a separate English-language trial for Harding.

Since the disaster, the official report of the board and a hard-hitting series of articles in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s English-language daily, have shown that the cost-cutting profit drive of the rail bosses, along with complicity from Ottawa’s Transport Canada agency, was the cause of the deadly disaster.

“Company rules prevented Harding from using a 10-second procedure to activate the automatic air brakes that would have prevented the disaster, in order to save 15 minutes of start-up time the next day,” Brian Stevens, National Railway director of Canada’s largest private sector union Unifor, told a Dec. 8 University of Ottawa conference on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

In addition, company bosses with permission from Transport Canada forced workers to run the railroad’s trains with only a single person, the engineer.

“Train accidents happen regularly all over the world,” Walsh told La Tribune Sherbrooke. “Most of the time it’s the engineer who is fingered in these rail catastrophes.”

The rail bosses’ utter disregard for safety in their drive for profits was highlighted again when Transport Canada officials laid charges Nov. 15 against the Canadian Pacific Railway and two former CP managers under the Railway Safety Act. They are charged with illegally ordering a freight train crew — over strenuous objections from the conductor and engineer — to park a 57-car train carrying dangerous goods on a slope above the town of Revelstoke, British Columbia, and leave it unattended without the handbrakes applied.

This was a direct breach of emergency directives by the government established after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Transport Canada says.

The incident took place on Feb. 15, 2015, hours before the Teamsters union strike deadline at the railroad.

Some 3,000 Canadian Pacific rail workers went out on a Canada-wide strike against the rail bosses’ moves that endanger workers and those who live along the tracks. Union pickets wore vests saying “fatigue kills,” pointing to Canadian Pacific’s efforts to increase work hours between rest periods. The union ended the strike after one day when the government threatened to impose strike-breaking legislation.

CP representatives and the two former managers are set to appear in court in Revelstoke Feb. 1.

Solidarity messages for Harding and Labrie can be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9 or thomaspwalsh@hotmail.com.

What Have We Learned From the Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster?

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, December 21, 2016

Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV.

Stevens is currently National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, but he previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains. At a recent conference in Ottawa examining lessons from the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster, he recounted his reaction to seeing those initial scenes of destruction.  

That ain’t Canada, that can’t happen in North America because our brake systems won’t allow that,” he said when he eventually learned the images he was seeing were from Canada. “My heart sank … It was crushing.”  

Stevens went on to explain his opinion of the root cause of the problem, summing up the challenges in Canada with one simple statement: “The railways write the rules.” 

He also placed blame on the deregulation of the Canadian rail industry that began more than three decades ago.

Lac Megantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of that deregulation.

One example of the effects of deregulation can be seen in the cuts to the number of people conducting inspections, from over 7,000 railway and rail car inspectors in 1984, down to “less than 2,000” now, according to Stevens. 

He didn't mince words about what he's seen change in the three years since Canada's worst rail accident.

“The railway barons continue to exist and continue to drive the industry and the government,” said Stevens.

September 13th: Thousands petition to Drop the Charges Against Harding and Labrie

By Fritz Edler - Harding and LaBrie Defense, September 8, 2016

Time: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Place: Palais de Justice, 375 Rue King Ouest (corner of King and Belvédère), Sherbrooke, QC

(Sherbrooke, QC)-Representatives of the Harding and Labrie Defense Committee, Railroad Workers United (RWU) and community allies from the Lac Mégantic area will be at the procedural hearings at the Palais de Justice in Sherbrooke, QC on September 13th, 2016 carrying petitions signed by over 2000 people across North America calling for ending the prosecution of Canadian railworkers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie. Harding and Labrie have been targeted and charged under the Criminal Code as well as the Railroad Safety Act and other laws. The charges could result in prison terms up to life.

“Investigations have already determined that the actions of these two were not the predominate cause the Lac-Mégantic tragedy,” said Committee representative Fritz Edler, a 35-year veteran train engineer. “The runaway train that killed 47 and destroyed half the town was the result of railroad managerial irresponsibility compounded by a failure of government oversight and safety regulation. There was a lax safety culture that has to change.”

The irresponsible practice of sending out unit trains of the most volatile kind with only a single crew member illustrates the disregard for public safety by the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railroad (MMA) whose most important policymakers have had no legal penalty.

“The number of runaway trains reported across Canada has increased every year since Lac­ Mégantic,” Edler added. “It’s no wonder the people of Lac Mégantic have no confidence in the current actions of the railroad companies or the government agencies to keep them safe, and are calling for the tracks to detour around the town rather than run through it.”

Supporters will gather at 9 am on September 13th in the Palais de Justice Square in Sherbrooke to present the petitions. After the procedural hearing, Harding’s legal defense team will update supporters on the latest developments in the case.

If You Care About Railroad Safety You Must Defend Tom Harding

Editorial - Railroad Workers United, Highball, Winter 2016

Practically every North American railroader now knows about the tragic train wreck in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July, 2013. With its tremendous loss of life and destruction, the disaster made headlines around the world. In the aftermath of that accident, as we discussed it amongst ourselves, details became known. One of those details was that within days of the wreck the locomotive engineer of the runaway train, Tom Harding, was arrested and ultimately charged. He and his Dispatcher face the possibility of life in prison if found guilty as charged. No company official of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) – the railroad upon which the wreck took place - nor the company itself have faced criminal charges.

To this day, there is confusion and disinformation circulated about that matter. For those of us in the fight for rail safety, it is imperative that we know the facts. This is key not just to prevent a grave injustice, but to prevent future repetitions of that incident and to stop the dangerous push by the rail carriers to deflect all liability for the consequences of their policy decisions and simply blame-the-worker every and any time there is an accident or injury, fatality or disaster.

Some railroaders – even a few known as safety conscious can get this issue wrong. Because conscientious trainmen and engineers take safety on the job so seriously, taking personal responsibility comes as second nature to us. No one wants to be seen as making excuses for a co-worker who doesn't take his/her job or their co-workers' safety seriously. As a result, some raise arguments that perhaps Tom Harding is guilty of something, that maybe he deserves to be charged. Therefore, it is crucial that we examine the facts.

Labor Beat: Railroad Safety--Workers, Community & the Environment

By Milo Wolf - Labor Beat, October 26, 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.

Motivated by the need to prevent dangerous and toxic railroad accidents, railroad workers, environmental and community activists met on Sept. 19, 2015 in Chicago for a conference organized by Railroad Workers United. A recurring topic was the 2013 railroad disaster in Lac-Megantic, Canada involving what is known as a "bomb train" of oil tanker cars that wiped out a significant part of that community. That doomed train in fact went through Chicago on its way to Lac-Megantic.​

This video demonstrates how squeezing increased productivity from rail workers produces negative effects that extend into the community and environment, in addition to the problem of exploiting workers.

After years of debating with management, retired locomotive engineer Fritz Edler concluded: "We demanded that they produce the evidence that you could do these [work] schedules and have it not be unsafe. And what they would do is stand up in the room and say 'fatigue is not a safety factor'. This is why we can't have this discussion just inside the railroad. We can't do that because they would never say that out in public."

Interviews and speakers featured: Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of RWU; Dr. Lora Chamberlain, Chicago Oil by Rail; Jeff Kurtz, former BLET Iowa State Legislative Chair; Rozalinda Borcila, Artist, Compass; Ed Michael, RWU; Fritz Edler, BLET Div. 482 Local Chair (ret.); Vince Hardt, Chicagoland Oil by Rail.

RWU Resolution of Support for Charged Railroad Workers

Resolution passed by Railroad Workers United - October 7, 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.

Whereas the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MM&A) had a record of compromising the safety and security of employees and the communities through which the railroad operated, scoring very low on the indicators of what makes for a safe railroad; and

Whereas the MM&A Railway did not keep its equipment in a state of good repair; operated with single employee crews; did not effectively manage crew fatigue; and had a poor “safety culture”; and

Whereas the MM&A Railway is primarily responsible for the disaster by placing Tom Harding and the residents of Lac-Mégantic in a hazardous situation, placing profit over safety; and

Whereas, MM&A former CEO Ed Burkhart has had a history of buying and selling railroads around the world, attacking the existent unions, and degrading safety and working conditions of the employees; and

Whereas Transport Canada did not effectively enforce its own railroad safety rules through proper oversight, inspections, or relevant operations testing: and

Whereas the relevant laws, operating rules and policies in place at the time of the Lac Megantic, Quebec disaster allowed for that a very heavy train carrying a highly dangerous substance could legally and operationally be left on the main line with an unlocked cab on a steep grade, unattended, with only one faulty locomotive running in order to keep the braking system charged; and

Whereas the failure of an employee to perfectly perform all job functions at all times might be grounds for discipline and/or dismissal by the company, but should not never be grounds for a civil trial and a murder charge; and

Whereas RWU has continually advocated for railroad safety programs that eliminate hazards rather than blaming victims of railroad accidents; and

Therefore, Be it Resolved that RWU once again calls on all North American railroaders and our unions to take an active role in making our nations’ rail networks and communities safer by insisting upon rail safety programs which focus on hazard elimination rather than simply worker behavior; and

Be it Further Resolved that RWU believes that in the aftermath of this tragedy, railroaders and our unions must focus on how to prevent future tragedies such as Lac-Mégantic through such efforts as: eliminating hazards; strengthening rules governing movements of trains carrying hazardous materials; restricting the length and tonnage of trains; reducing crew fatigue; and supporting measures to ensure two person operations of freight trains; and

Be it Further Resolved that while RWU does not take a position on their possible role in the train’s runaway, RWU considers the civil charges against Tom Harding and Richard Labrie to be outrageous and absurd, an attack on all railroad workers that could set a dangerous precedent for all workers involved in future accidents and as such, these charges should be dropped; and

Be it Finally Resolved, that RWU demands an immediate end to the injustice of this witch hunt and this attempt to scapegoat these fellow workers, and insists that any criminal charges should start with Transport Canada and MM&A CEO Ed Burkhardt.

Railroad Work Is Getting More and More Dangerous. These Workers Want To Change That

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, October 10, 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.

CHICAGO—Railroad workers from around the country and Chicago residents stood on an overpass on a recent bright September Sunday, watching a seemingly endless line of black tanker cars pass on the railroad tracks below. The train was likely carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, judging by the red hazard placards on the cars and widely documented trends in crude oil shipment.

Chicagoans have become increasingly worried about oil trains carrying the highly explosive Bakken crude through the city, a major transport hub on the way to East Coast refineries. A conference hosted by the progressive labor group Railroad Workers United in Chicago Sept. 19 brought together railroad workers and local residents and train buffs to discuss how railroad workers’ safety and labor rights issues dovetail with safety and environmental concerns for the larger public.

Oil trains are a perfect example, speakers and participants at the conference noted. Just look at the July 6, 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a parked oil train dislodged and plowed into the town, killing 47 and causing massive destruction and ecological devastation.

The train was operated by a single crew member, engineer Thomas Harding, who now faces the possibility of life in prison, with trial starting in November.

While prosecutors and the now-defunct Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway have blamed Harding and several other railroad employees for the disaster, labor unions and other advocates say such tragedies are bound to happen more often if railroads are allowed to operate trains with single-man-crews and otherwise make staffing and management decisions driven by the bottom line rather than the needs and rights of railroad employees plus public safety.

This weekend, October 11-12, there will be rallies in Lac-Mégantic and Chicago, demanding freedom for Harding and railroad traffic conductor Richard Labrie, accountability from railroads and government regulators including bans on one-man-crews and a continued ban on shipping crude oil through Lac-Mégantic. A flier for the Chicago rally, held at noon on October 12 outside the Canadian consulate at 180 N. Stetson Drive, calls on “environmentalists, neighborhood organizations, railroad workers, steel workers, firemen, all unions and all justice-loving people” to support Harding and Labrie and demand strict safety regulations from the federal government.

Oil “Bomb” Train, Lac-Megantic Solidarity Protest

The following protest took place on October 12, 2015 at the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago, at Randolph and Stetson, 1 block east of the NE corner of the Randolph and Michigan and was endorsed by Railroad Workers United following #RailCon15

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.

No Oil Bomb Trains in Lac-Mégantic, Chicagoland or Anytown. Keep the explosive oil in the soil and out of our towns!

The coalition of groups endorsing this action are determined to send the message that we stand with the railroad workers in their efforts to keep our communities safe from the inherent dangers of these volatile oil trains, and that the railroad and oil corporations involved in the tragedy of July 6th, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic are the principal offenders. Specifically, we demand:

  • 1. More than one man crews for all freight trains, especially the High Hazard Flammable Trains, such as the Bakken oil trains. In light of fatigue and emergency situations, a single man crew is insufficient for handling all possible dangerous scenarios.
  • 2. No oil should be transported through Lac-Mégantic by rail until all the tracks in the town have been repaired and passed inspections. The people of Lac-Mégantic have been adamant about this and their demands should not be ignored.
  • 3. We agree with the victims and residents of Lac-Mégantic when they call for the Canadian government to stop scapegoating Mr. Harding, the engineer of the train involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster. The residents are asking for further investigations, and that the blame for the accident climb up the chain of command and throughout the entire unsafe infrastructure of the railroad and oil corporations.
  • More information can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/events/920554121361635/
  • Endorsed by: Chicagoland Oil By Rail, Pilsen Alliance, McKinley Park Progressive Alliance, Chicago Greens, Frack Free Illinois, Near West Citizens for Peace and Justice, 350Kishwaukee, Forest City 350, Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, Railroad Workers United, Fox Valley Citizen's For Peace And Justice