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Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWED)

OSHA fines Norfolk Southern for worker safety violations at East Palestine chemical cleanup

By Reid Frazier - Allegheny Front, August 9, 2023

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining Norfolk Southern nearly $50,000 for workplace safety violations during the chemical cleanup at the site of its East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. As part of a settlement, the company will also have to monitor any medical issues of workers brought in to clear and rebuild the tracks at the site. 

Those workers had previously reported health problems similar to those experienced by nearby residents after the February 3 derailment, which included 11 cars containing hazardous chemicals. 

After a five-month investigation, OSHA cited the company for failing to inform workers about which hazardous chemicals spilled at the site. The agency also found the company didn’t create a decontamination zone at the site, or ensure they wore appropriate chemical-resistant footwear. 

The violations also included allowing an employee without proper respiratory protection to pour cement on potentially contaminated soil, and not developing an emergency response plan that included clear lines of authority, communication and training, and site security.

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” said OSHA Cleveland area office director Howard Eberts in a statement.

Rail Updates: New Legislation & Company Corruption

Norfolk Southern's 'Safety Plan' Includes Automation That Could Further Endanger Workers

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, March 8, 2023

"You can't just replace the manpower with a machine when it's not always as effective," said one railroad worker.

With railroad operator Norfolk Southern involved in numerous significant train derailments and other accidents in recent weeks, the company on Monday unveiled a "six-point safety plan" that officials claimed would "immediately enhance the safety of its operations."

But critics including rail workers were quick to point out that one aspect of the plan could worsen the growing problem of reduced railroad crews, which they say has contributed to dangerous conditions on railroads.

The plan calls for a number of improvements to Norfolk Southern's systems to detect overheated wheel bearings, which the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report appeared to be the cause of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3.

In addition, Norfolk Southern said it aims to accelerate its "digital train inspection program" by partnering with Georgia Tech Research Institute to develop new safety inspection technology the company claims could "identify defects and needed repairs much more effectively than traditional human inspection."

The technology would use "machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence," the plan reads—offering what journalist Sam Sacks said is likely a thinly veiled proposal for "further reductions" in the company's workforce.

Rail Workers Warn Safety Bill Loopholes Are Big Enough to 'Run a Freight Train Through'

By Bret Wilkins - Common Dreams, March 3, 2023

"If the language is not precise, the Class 1 railroads will avoid the scope of the law without violating the law, yet again putting the safety of our members and American communities into harm's way," said one union leader.

Amid heightened national focus on railway safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster and other recent accidents, one railroad workers' union warned Friday that, while welcome, a bipartisan rail safety bill has "loopholes big enough to operate a 7,000-foot train through."

The Railway Safety Act of 2023—introduced earlier this week by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Fetterman(D-Pa.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)—is meant to "prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine."

The legislation would impose limits on freight train lengths—which in some cases currently exceed three miles. The measure was introduced a day after Democratic U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna(D-Calif.) and Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) put forth a billthat would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to impose stricter regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.

"We welcome greater federal oversight and a crackdown on railroads that seem all too willing to trade safety for higher profits," Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said in a statement.

Railroad Working Conditions, Disasters, and Workers’ Organizing: Reflections of a former rail worker

By Robert Bartlett - Solidarity, February 22, 2023

In the wake of the bipartisan congressional imposition of a rail contract in December, there has been a focus on the inability to at least provide some sick days for rail workers, a “privilege” they have never had. What is lost in centering the dispute on that admittedly absurd denial is the overall deterioration of work conditions in an industry which has always been known for its focus on profits over safety for both workers and the communities through which trains pass.

The train derailment in eastern Ohio has brought the consequences of putting profit over safety into sharp focus for those willing to look beyond the catastrophic predictions of doom should rail workers be allowed to strike. Before going into the detailed analysis of the Ohio disaster provided by the cross-craft group Railroad Workers United (RWU) https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Special-Report–Monster-Train-Wreck-in-Ohio.html?soid=1116509035139&aid=fzMOujXbqBo let me describe some of the trends in how the railroads have traditionally operated from when I first hired out as a brakeman on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (now consolidated into the Union Pacific) in 1974. I speak with the most familiarity of what train crews coped with every day.

In 1974 when decent paying industrial jobs were relatively easy to find, the turnover on my railroad was constant. My first week on the job consisted of being in a training class with about 15 other new hires. We spent a week learning some rudiments of the job and the “Rule Book” which detailed all the safety rules that we were supposed to follow. People used to joke that every rule was based upon some accident that either caused an injury or death to a rail worker and there was certainly truth to that. The skill that they focused on was on how to get on and off moving equipment, i.e. engines and rail cars. This is an inherently dangerous thing to do under any circumstance, since if you miss getting your foot into the “stirrup” at the bottom of the ladder on the side of a boxcar you at best might be dragged alongside the car until you extracted yourself or in the worst case you might be run over by the wheels and either dismembered or killed. You were expected to do this at all times of the day or night, in conditions of rain, sleet, or snow.

Once you got on, you were expected to climb to the top of boxcars to tighten or loosen manual brakes -all while the train was moving. Newer boxcars were safer in that the brakes were only about 5 feet off the ground, while older rolling stock had brakes at the top of the car. These antiquated cars should have either been retired or retrofitted with lower brakes, but the practice of railroads was to use the equipment until it wore out. Eventually in the 1990s the rules changed and to get on and off the car or engine, it needed to be standing.

In a class of 15, like the one I was in, more than half of the people quit the job within months. It wasn’t the dangerous conditions so much that forced people to look for another job, it was the irregular schedule of never knowing when you were going to be called into work. When a recession hit the economy around 1980, and with the decline of industries like steel and auto, those other high paying semi-skilled union jobs largely disappeared and then the turnover slowed down. Recently, with the worsening of conditions in all the rail crafts, turnover has increased even in rural areas where a rail job used to be highly coveted and clung to in the midst of the depopulation of small towns. 

The Case for Nationalizing the Railroads: Workers say now is the time to do the impossible

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, February 16, 2023

Railroad workers packed themselves into hotel conference rooms near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in June 2022 to talk fervently about a momentous event potentially on the horizon: the first industry-wide rail strike in three decades. 

“All 12 railroad unions have proclaimed themselves united,” said Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United (RWU) general secretary, during a conference session about chokepoints in the supply chain. ​“There could actually be a national railroad strike for the first time in almost 30 years.” 

Contract negotiations between those 12 unions and the country’s major freight railroad companies had ground to a halt by the conference, which was organized by RWU and the pro-union group Labor Notes. 

In July, 99.5% of the membership of the union representing railroad engineers — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — voted to authorize a strike if legal hurdles were cleared.

The possibility presented a challenge for the Biden administration. President Joe Biden had become known as the most labor-friendly president in recent history, while a walkout threatened to paralyze the economy with a potential cost of $2 billion per day. The administration eventually negotiated a deal with union leaders and company leaders, announced Sept. 15, 2022, requiring a significant pay raise for workers without meaningfully addressing their primary concerns: short-staffing and a lack of paid sick days.

Many elected officials and pundits lauded the deal, but it still needed to be ratified by each union’s rank and file.

Three unions representing railroad workers voted down the proposed contract, while others voted for it. Then, in November, the country’s largest rail union — the SMART Transportation Division, which represents conductors and brakemen — rejected the deal, and a national rail strike was firmly on the table. Even unions that approved of the deal pledged to honor any picket lines.

On December 1, 2022, at Biden’s urging, Congress intervened, passing a law to force the unions to agree to the deal. Many railroad workers were furious — and felt betrayed.

“It was very frustrating, from the ​‘most pro-labor president America’s ever had,’” says Matt Weaver, legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the nation’s third-largest railroad union. ​“When [railroads] have record profits and profit margins, and yet this deal is imposed, we’ve seen that our labor is expendable.”

The ordeal has also led many railroad workers and industry watchers to consider a vastly increased role for government in freight railroads: nationalization.

Where Do Railroad Workers Go from Here?

By Jay, Marilee Taylor, John Tormey, Matt Parker, and Maximillian Alvarez - In These Times, February 10, 2023

After a three-year saga of stalled contract negotiations between the country’s freight rail carriers and the 12 unions representing over 100,000 railroad workers, ​“pro-union” President Biden and Congress ​“averted” a national rail shutdown by overriding the democratic will of rail workers and forcing a contract down their throats. So, what happens now? 

In December, shortly after the Biden administration and Congress intervened, Working People convened a special all-railroader panel to break down the events of the last week and to discuss where railroad workers and the labor movement go from here.

Panelists include: Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23; Marilee Taylor, who worked on the railroads for over 30 years and retired earlier this year from her post as an engineer for BNSF Railway, but is still an active member of Railroad Workers United; John Tormey, a writer and BMWED-IBT member who works as a track laborer for the commuter rail in Massachusetts; and Matt Parker, a full-time locomotive engineer who’s worked on the railroads for 19 years and also serves part-time as Chairman on the Nevada State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

'Huge Win': Railway Unions Strike Deal on Sick Leave With Industry Giant CSX

By Bret Wilkins - Common Dreams, February 8, 2023

"Now it's time for the entire rail industry, which made over $26 billion in profits last year, to provide at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America," said Sen. Bernie Sanders in response.

After sustained pressure from organized workers and their allies, freight rail giant CSX Transportation agreed Tuesday to provide 5,000 employees in two unions with four days of paid sick leave each year—an industry-first move progressive said should serve as an example for other companies to follow.

The agreement reached between Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX and two unions—the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen (BRC) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED)—will provide four days of fully paid sick leave each year, while allowing union members to take up to three personal leave days annually. Additionally, employees can apply their unused paid sick days to their 401K retirement accounts or take payouts.

"We are extremely proud that BRC is one of the very first unions to reach this type of an agreement," said Don Grissom, president of the BRC—which represents mechanical workers—in a statement. "This agreement is a significant accomplishment and provides a very important benefit for our members working at CSXT. The other carriers should take note and come to the bargaining table in a similar manner."

‘Workers Know the Truth’ About the Derailment Disaster - Why Are They Being Ignored?

By Bob Hennelly - Work-Bites, February 8, 2023

Throughout the recent hazardous chemical freight train derailment in Ohio and the four-day ordeal that followed while the flaming wreck was stabilized, the one perspective that was consistently missing from the reporting was that of the union railroad workers. It didn’t matter if it was the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Associated Press , the reporting relied on interviews with local, state and federal officials as well as statements from the Norfolk Southern, the rail carrier but not the perspective of their union workers.

It was as if robots and AI were already driving the train. The entire narrative of the cataclysm was framed by officials and the corporation whose malfunctioning train was now putting workers and the community in life-threatening jeopardy. The derailment played out in the rural borderland of Ohio and Pennsylvania requiring both states to activate an emergency evacuation response.

On Friday evening, the tranquility of East Palestine, Ohio, with a population of 4,761 people, was upended when a Norfolk Southern train with 150 cars in tow, derailed sparking a conflagration that inundated the area with toxic smoke. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 20 of the cars in train were carrying hazardous materials. 

The U.S. EPA had to start monitoring the air for carbon monoxide, oxygen hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride. Throughout the weekend, firefighters did their best to keep the disabled tanker cars cool as some of the hazardous cargo burned off. The local fire chief told reporters he was concerned about the presence of vinyl chloride, a colorless, toxic, and flammable gas.

“If you are in this red zone that is on the map and you refuse to evacuate, you are risking death,” Pennsylvania’s Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) warned. “If you are within the orange area on this map, you risk permanent lung damage within a matter of hours or days.”

In initial comments, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] posited that the derailment of the 150-car train was most likely caused by a problem with one of the axles on one of the freight or tanker cars. The catastrophic derailment, with significant public health and environmental implications, comes a few months after President Biden and Congress imposed a contract on the nation’s rail unions that their rank and file rejected in part because it lacked paid sick days.

Workers Are Standing Up Against Railway Unions’ Raw Deal

By Shuvu Bhattarai - The Progressive, December 15, 2022

Biden forced railway workers to accept an agreement that lacked paid sick days; now rallies against the deal have spread across the country.

On December 7, outside of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, a crowd of more than 100 Metro-North Railroad workers, airline pilots, construction workers, teachers, and activists held a solidarity rally in support of railway unions. 

The rally is the latest in a string of protests that have taken place across the country after President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress imposed a tentative agreement on Class I freight rail workers, an agreement that had been voted down the membership of four rail unions representing a total of around 60,000 workers. The agreement grants only one additional day of paid sick leave, which was a major concern for the rail workers, many of whom are on call virtually 24/7. 

Five days before the Grand Central rally, on December 2, about 200 protesters held a demonstration outside of Boston’s JFK Museum, while Biden was visiting. They called the President a “scab” and a “strikebreaker,” chanting “striking is a human right,” and demanding sick leave for all. On December 5, around 30 people demonstrated outside of the Brooklyn home of Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. Schumer had voted for the tentative agreement. 

On December 6, a small protest was held at the University of California, Berkeley, where striking UC Grad Workers spoke about how their struggle was connected to that of the rail workers. The next day, a group of twenty-five union members and activists in Baltimore, Maryland, gathered with similar demands.

At the Grand Central rally, which was partly coordinated by the December 12th Movement, a Black human rights organization based in New York City, organizer Omowale Clay echoed the feeling of betrayal by the Democratic establishment that’s been driving these outpourings of solidarity: “To take away the right of our brothers and sisters to strike is a violation of their human rights. To take away their right to be sick so that they can speed up and exploit us more is a violation of their human rights.” 

Justine Medina, a worker organizing with the Amazon Labor Union added, “We won our election on April 1, eight months ago, and the bosses refused to recognize Amazon Labor Union, refused to come to the table to negotiate a contract, just like the railroad workers.” 

Similar messages of support were echoed by teachers, construction workers, and others during the protest. A member of Railroad Workers United, a cross-union solidarity caucus of railroad workers, spoke of how the conditions in the job deteriorated especially over the past few years. 

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