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Backbone Campaign’s people-powered plan to electrify America’s railroads

By Sydney Parker - Real Change, May 3, 2017

In our fractured political climate, it’s hard to envision a cause that could unite a rural farmer with a big-city tech worker, a union laborer with a grassroots environmentalist, or a tribal leader with a government official, but Bill Moyer thinks he’s found just the cause: Solutionary Rail.

Solutionary Rail proposes that the public electrify America’s railroads, run them on renewable energy and transform railroad corridors into electricity superhighways transmitting wind and solar energy from remote rural areas to urban centers. If enacted, Moyer said the proposal would recenter the role of rail in U.S. transportation and provide the public with a new sustainable source of economic vitality.

In other words, with Solutionary Rail, everybody wins.  

“It provides almost a psychic relief from the burden of being defined by what we oppose,” said Moyer, who serves as executive director of the Washington state-based Backbone Campaign, a nonporift that creates “artful activism.” “This offers an opportunity to be for something great, to be in dialogue with communities that we may not have anything else otherwise in common about some shared interest.”

It all began with Mike Elliott, a rail labor leader affiliated with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. In 2013, Elliott challenged Moyer to devise a “green” concept for modernization of the northern corridor railroad. Elliott is best known in Washington state for blowing the whistle on safety violations by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. His call for change was echoed by hundreds of BNSF employees fed up with the status quo.

Railroad Workers and Our Allies Must Unite in Support of AMTRAK

By Ron Kaminkow - Teamsters for a Democratic Union, April 25, 2017

On March 16th, President Trump released a blueprint budget that proposes to slash funding for the Department of Transportation by $2.4 billion, including funding for all Amtrak “long distance” trains, along with funding for dozens of transit expansion projects nationwide. In recent months, Trump has voiced support for massive investment in the nation’s infra-structure. Yet ironically, his first proposed budget not only fails to deliver, it guts funding for existing infrastructure.

The blueprint budget proposes the elimination of most Amtrak routes across the country. If we are to save the national passenger rail system, railroad workers and their unions must unite with passenger advocacy groups, environmental organizations, and communities across the country. The vast majority of Americans want more - not less - passenger trains. In this fight, just like in others, railroad workers have lots of potential allies.

All railroaders – freight, as well as transit and passenger – should be alarmed and concerned by this proposal. Should Amtrak be defunded and dismembered, it is near certain that nothing would replace it. Privately run passenger trains fail to turn a profit – the reason that the rail carriers abandoned such service in the 1960's. And it is highly unlikely that private vendors – even if there were any – who wished to enter such a market would even be allowed by most – if not all – carriers access to their railroads. Amtrak is barely tolerated by the host railroads as it is, and then only because the act which created the entity in 1970 mandates that it be entitled to operate passenger trains on the nation’s railroads.

Thankfully, the President’s blueprint budget is not the last word on the question. We have the potential to save Amtrak – and transit funding too – over the course of the coming weeks and months, as Congress fashions what will be ultimately be the final budget. We have been down this road before of course, when George Bush was President. We will need to mobilize now like we did then. Because if Amtrak is defunded, thousands of fellow rails will lose their jobs, and as a result, we will all potentially suffer as the income for Railroad Retirement is dramatically diminished.

Ironically, as it turns out, Amtrak is one of the most efficient passenger railroads in the world, covering 94% of its operating costs at the fare box! Adjusted revenue of $2.15 billion was the most ever for a fiscal year (2016). Amtrak set an all-time ridership record despite record low gasoline prices inducing travelers to drive rather than seek public transportation. Demand for trains is out there! Considering that all forms of transportation – including airline, inland waterway, as well as automobile, bus and anything else that goes down the highway – are heavily subsidized by the states and federal government, far more than Amtrak, we are getting a great deal with the limited subsidy that Amtrak receives to keep the trains running. And in some cases – especially in rural areas – the train is the only form of public transportation available!

And trains are the safest form of transportation known to humanity. Railroad transport utilizes less land and space to transport an equivalent number of passengers in any other mode. And trains emit less pollutants than other forms, and can make use of alternative and renewable energy. As the nation’s highways and airports become ever more congested, we should be expanding passenger train options, not reducing them! As fossil fuel shipments decline, and demand for public transportation continues to grow, passenger trains could fill the void and excess track capacity in certain lanes. And in select mid-range corridors of 400 miles or less; e.g. Chicago to St. Louis, Chicago to Twin Cities; Bay Area to L.A., Houston to Dallas; Jacksonville to Miami; L.A. to Las Vegas, there is great potential to develop and expand multi-train departures on faster and more reliable schedules.

But to save Amtrak and expand the use of passenger rail – thereby increasing union rail employment, and ensuring the future of Railroad Retirement – will take a gallant effort. Rail unions cannot do this themselves, passenger advocacy groups cannot, neither can environmental organizations nor municipalities, all of whom are supporters of passenger rail. Therefore, we need a “Grand Alliance” of all of these forces to win the day. While all of us may have a specific agenda and focus, we have far more in common with one another than we have differences, there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is high time that our labor unions reach out, network, and build the necessary alliances with these forces, not just for a one-time lobbying effort for a specific narrow goal, as important as it may be. Rather, we need to build a strategic long-term alliance – despite our differences - with these forces, where we come to see one another as natural coalition partners for the long run.

Governments around the world are investing heavily in passenger rail. They understand that it is the safest, most convenient, environmentally sensitive, and often fastest way to get around. We can do it here too. But it will take the political will power and the formation of a lasting progressive coalition to bring it about. What better time than now to get started!

How we can turn railroads into a climate solution

By Patrick Mazza - Grist, March 7, 2017

Railroads have become a nexus of controversy in recent years due to their role in transporting climate-twisting fossil fuels. But they could become a locomotive driving the growth of clean energy. That is the aim of a new proposal to electrify railroads, run them on renewable energy, and use rail corridors as electricity superhighways to carry power from remote solar and wind installations to population centers.

The proposal, called Solutionary Rail, has been developed by a team of rail experts, economists, and public interest advocates assembled by the Washington state–based Backbone Campaign. Bill McKibben writes in the foreword to the recently released Solutionary Rail book that he has “been following the debate over energy, transportation, and climate change since the late 1980s … So it’s hard to come up with an idea I haven’t come across before. Rail electrification, as proposed in this remarkable book, is that rarest of things: a genuinely new idea, and one that makes immediate gut sense.”

An activist movement, sometimes known as the “thin green line,” has grown up in the Northwest in recent years to resist coal and oil shipments through the region, between the rich fossil resources east of the Rockies and the growing markets of Asia. The Backbone Campaign, a group that develops innovative strategies and tactics to build grassroots democratic movements, has been enmeshed in this movement.

The movement has been successful in stopping many fossil fuel export facilities from being built along the Pacific Coast. But it’s largely been a defensive campaign rather than a proactive one. In 2013, a rail labor leader challenged Backbone Executive Director Bill Moyer to green a labor concept for modernizing rail lines in the northern states, a “yes” to accompany the “no.” Moyer took up the challenge, and the result is Solutionary Rail.

Rail electrification is common in other parts of the world. Around the globe, electricity serves nearly a quarter of railroad track miles and supplies over one-third of the energy that powers trains. But in the U.S., under 1 percent of tracks are electrified. That’s due to high upfront capitalization costs, an obstacle that publicly owned railroads in other nations do not face. Railroads in other countries also do not have to pay property taxes on electrification infrastructure, which U.S. railroads do.

Few industries are as well positioned as railroads to lead a transition to a clean economy. Unlike other heavy, long-haul transportation vehicles such as ships, planes, and semitrucks, trains can be easily electrified, and electricity is increasingly coming from clean sources such as sun and wind. Rail is already the most efficient form of ground transportation, and it has an unparalleled capacity to provide clean freight and passenger mobility.

Under the Solutionary Rail plan, electrification would be accomplished in conjunction with track modernization. Together, these would allow express freight service running above 80 miles per hour and high-speed passenger service up to 125 mph. Very high-speed passenger rail operates above 180 mph in Europe and Asia, and is being developed in California and the U.S. Northeast, but it generally requires dedicated tracks. Solutionary Rail’s more modest increase in speed is the economically practical option for most U.S. lines. Existing tracks can be upgraded, and freight and passenger trains can be accommodated on the same lines.

The proposal also includes running power transmission lines through the rail corridors. It’s currently difficult to get the rights-of-way needed to build new long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines, which means that some renewable energy, like wind power produced in the Great Plains, is stranded and can’t get to where it’s needed. But rail corridors are already being put to industrial use, so they could easily accommodate new power infrastructure, connecting renewable-energy-rich rural areas to big metropolitan areas.

To pay for all this, the Solutionary Rail team developed the concept of Steel Interstate Development Authorities, public agencies that would be able to raise low-cost capital from financial markets and take advantage of federal transportation dollars. SIDAs for different rail corridors would be created by interstate compacts and work in public-private partnerships with railroads. The electrification would remain under public ownership, managed by the SIDA, alleviating the property tax issue. Backbone is initially pushing a SIDA in the Northern Corridor, which has rail lines stretching from Chicago to the Northwest, to demonstrate the feasibility of electrification on lines mostly owned by BNSF, a property of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Rail in the U.S. is not a huge contributor to climate disruption — it’s responsible for only 2 percent of greenhouse gases from the nation’s transportation sector. But it could be a huge part of the climate solution. A cleaner, more robust railroad system could replace substantial amounts of truck traffic, while making intercity passenger service more reliable and competitive with highways and aviation. This could help railroads thrive without being reliant on transporting bulk shipments of fossil fuels. The Solutionary Rail strategy still relies on resistance movements to stop those shipments, but offers the “yes” to strengthen the “no.” That is why the proposal has drawn support from labor leaders: It would help railroad workers make a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.

The huge, public benefits of rail electrification justify a public expenditure. But electrification would also greatly benefit privately owned railroads, and so they must offer public benefits in return. One is labor justice. Solutionary Rail has adopted the justice agenda of Railroad Workers United, a group that unites rail labor across union lines. It includes good working and safety conditions. The Solutionary Rail plan also calls for right-of-way justice for native tribes, renegotiating easements where tribes have historic grievances.

With Solutionary Rail, the oldest form of mass mechanized transportation can create a track to 21st century clean transportation and become an engine for sustainably and broadly realized prosperity.

US railroads demand concessions from 145,000 workers

By Jeff Lusanne - World Socialist Web Site, December 31, 2016

Major US freight railroads terminated long drawn-out contract negotiations with rail unions last month and invoked provisions for federal mediation. The railroads leading the contract talks are demanding that workers pay more for health care, accept minimal raises and agree to new concessions on working conditions.

The contract negotiation covers 145,000 employees in 11 unions, the largest of which are the United Transportation Union (UTU/SMART), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED). Representatives from most of the largest US railroads—Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern, and CSX—form the National Carrier’s Conference Committee (NCCC), which carries out the negotiations. Additional railroads and employees are covered or influenced by the contract, which sets the standard for the industry.

Negotiations began two years ago and agreements expired on December 31, 2015, but rail workers continue to labor under the previous contract. The railroads appear to be biding their time until the Trump administration takes office, a factor they apparently see working to their advantage.

Typical of railroad management’s attitude is a December 15 statement that declares, “Now is not the time for excessive demands. Railroad employees are among the most highly compensated in the nation.” That leads to a link describing compensation that is full of misleading data. That wages surpassed the inflation rate in the last 10 years is presented as an outrage. The wages that the railroad bosses decry often come from working far more than 40 hours a week, in potentially extreme circumstances.

Most egregious, perhaps, is the bulleted statement claiming that workers enjoy “11 national holidays and three weeks of vacation each year.” Railroads operate on nearly every major national holiday, and have strict “absenteeism” policies that penalize what they consider excessive time off. Notoriously, there is no schedule for operating employees, and they often work 12-hour shifts, longer if travel time is included, and are frequently away from home. A common challenge faced by many railroad workers is being forced to miss family events, holidays, and even funerals.

Presently, employees pay at least $229 a month for health coverage, but the railroads are insisting that this is “below average” and must rise. The BMWED notes that it offered “savings” in health care that do not cost any railway worker or the railroads any money, raising the question of whether the unions are proposing lower-quality health plans for workers. Nevertheless, the railroads rejected that proposal.

The railroads have welcomed the intervention of the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that coordinates labor-management relations. Its three members consist of two Democrats and one Republican, and membership will likely change with the new administration.

The Railway Labor Act of 1926 was designed to prevent any possibility of a railroad strike. Whenever the mediation board declares an impasse in the negotiations—which could take months or even years—a 30-day cooling off period begins, during which negotiations continue. After that period, railroads could lock out employees, or unions could call a strike, unless the president authorizes a Presidential Emergency Board. The unions, tied to the Democratic Party, entirely accept this framework, so that even as negotiations have progressed, railroads have been able to impose cuts without opposition.

For their part, the major railroad unions are concerned that the huge concessions demanded by railroads could spark a rebellion by workers. Dennis Pierce, the national president of the BLET, writes that “the level of concessions that were demanded on our health and welfare benefits [are] way beyond anything rail unions have seen in decades” and that the low wage increases would not even cover increased health care costs.

The rail unions have overseen decades of concessions and a dramatic drop in railroad employment (from 1.5 million in 1947 to less than 250,000 today.) The two crewmembers in the cab of a freight train are split between two unions, the BLET and the UTU/SMART, which have a history of working with the railroads to gain an edge by offering concessions.

In 1994, the BLET asked engineers to cross the UTU (conductors) picket line at Soo Line railroad. Some 98 percent of the engineers refused to do so.

How a Railway Workers Union Won New Technology That Improves Jobs and Reduces Greenhouse Gases

By Karl (Fritz) Edler, BLET Div. 482, retired, Special Rep, Railroad Workers United, Washington, DC - Labor Network for Sustainability, December 16, 2016

This is the story of one group of workers who used their union to improve their own conditions – and fight climate change – by proposing and winning their own plan for investment in improved technology. It provides an inspiring example of how workers and their unions can take their own action to reduce their employer’s greenhouse gas emissions while improving their own jobs.

Union railroad workers at Amtrak’s Washington, DC terminal use “small platform” locomotives to make up and service passenger and commuter trains. These diesel-electric locomotives use diesel engines to generate the electricity that is used to provide the motive power.  Their small size is a key advantage in the close quarters of terminal yard operations.  The units that are currently in use are almost a half-century old, and are far behind modern standards and goals for diesel emissions.

Several years ago the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, through its DC State Legislative Board, foresaw a looming dilemma. Without action, these aging diesel-powered locomotives would be kept in service with as little maintenance as possible until they were beyond recovery. At that point they would be replaced — with the lowest price most likely being the prime consideration.

This meant that the workforce and the public would endure ever-worsening diesel particulate emissions as long as the highly-polluting engines were kept in service. When they would finally replaced, the replacement locomotives would not have the kinds of work qualities needed for best practices in train operations.  Replacement units would most likely be harder and more unwieldy to work.

The union’s State Legislative Board devised a plan to modernize the locomotives now with more energy-efficient engines using an advanced technology known as “gen-sets.” That would reduce pollution and provide higher work life quality while reducing fuel costs. It would also preserve the “small platform” that made terminal train operations safer and easier.

The Union approached the Washington, DC area Council of Governments (MWCoG) to put together a proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had an existing grant program to replace diesel powered equipment with less polluting equipment.

No Coal in Oakland: a Report on the Campaign

By Margaret Rossoff - No Coal in Oakland, August 2016; image by Brooke Anderson

Many activists have expressed interest in an account of how the No Coal in Oakland campaign was organized.  This article is a response, but is not a history.  It is structured thematically rather than chronologically, and the many amazing activists and organizers are not identified by name.  Some of our initiatives came from organizations and some came from individual activists, but this account does not attempt to credit them, as every idea became a shared project.  Unlike just about every document during the campaign, this is not a collectively written piece.  It was significantly improved by careful readings by several people, for which I am very grateful, but I am responsible for all errors and omissions.  I expect—and hope–others will be writing their own accounts from a variety of perspectives.

I have included many links for documents referred to in this account.  For general background about the campaign, go to NoCoalinOakland.info.  A guide to acronyms is at the end of the article.

Margaret Rossoff
margaretmft@gmail.com

Strategy

No Coal in Oakland’s campaign was focused on persuading the members of the Oakland City Council to ban storage and handling of coal at a bulk export marine terminal to be built on City-owned land.  This would effectively prevent the transport of coal through Oakland and other cities along the rail lines as well as the shipment of coal overseas.

  • Our campaign to get the council members to vote for the ban had several components.  The primary ones were:
  • Direct lobbying with council members.
  • Outreach to Oakland residents, including particularly West Oakland residents and participants in community groups.  This was intended both to influence elected officials through popular opposition, and because we saw our campaign as part of building the larger movement for environmental justice and to contain climate disruption.
  • Insuring that evidence of the dangers of coal was adequately documented and presented to the council, including rebutting misleading claims by the developers.
  • Exploring other routes that might also lead to keeping coal out of Oakland.

This article focuses primarily on the first two aspects of our campaign. 

Appeal from Railroad Workers United: No Single Employee Crews!

Public Comment Period Extended to June 15th at 11:59 PM EDT 

Tell the FRA:

"No Single Employee Train Crews!"

Email Your Message today!

Dear RWU Members & Supporters:

On March 15th, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) offricially announced a Proposed Rule on the whole question of crew staffing for trains in the United States. After careful consideration, RWU has come to the only conclusion possible: the Proposed Rule provides a road map for any and all rail carriers to obtain the FRA's blessing to run trains with a single employee. Therefore, RWU cannot support this Proposed Rule, period.

We continue to agree with the joint statement from nearly 7 years ago that the BLET and the UTU made in a joint Petition filed in June 2009 with the FRA on the question of traincrew  staffing which reads: “No conditions exist where one-person operations are safe.”  And since the Proposed Rule is predicated on the "safe" operation of trains with a single crew member, we must urge the FRA to promulgate a Rule that outlaws the practice. We urge all RWU members and all railroad workers to contact the FRA and tell them in plain language: "No single employee train crews!"

  • To write/FAX the FRA, click HERE.
  • To email the FRA, click HERE.
  • To view the RWU Letter to the FRA on the Proposed Rule, click HERE.
  • To view the FRA Proposed Rule, Click HERE.
  • To view the RWU Editorial on the Proposed Rule Click HERE.
  • To view a comprehensive article entitled "What's Wrong with Single Employee Train Operations?" with 21 reasons why they are unsafe and unworkable, click HERE.
  • To view the most recent RWU Resolution to Oppose Single Employe Operating Crews from March 2nd, 2015, see below or click HERE.
  • To view the original RWU Resolution on Single Employee Train crews from January 5th, 2010, click HERE
  •  

Railroaders’ Group Supports Rule to Ban Single Employee Train Operations

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 15, 2016

Railroad Workers United (RWU) – a coalition of railroad workers drawn from all crafts across North America – applauds the efforts by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to restrict the use of single employee train operations, and demand a two-person crew as a minimum staffing requirement on trains.

RWU has taken an unequivocal stand against single employee operations since our founding convention in 2008. In 2010, the RWU Steering Committee reiterated our position in a formal resolution in opposition to single mployee train crews (see attached). And in 2012, we initiated a campaign of activities designed to build opposition to the carriers’ plans for universal single employee train operations.

“Our efforts - together with those of the unions of the rail operating crafts in the last few years - have brought this issue before the general public and the government”, states locomotive engineer and RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow. “The proposed rule by the FRA released on Monday is a major step forward in the fight against the dangerous and reckless proposal by the nation’s rail carriers to run trains with a lone employee. While the FRA Proposed Rule is far from perfect, providing loopholes and allowing for exemptions in too many instances, it is certainly a major stride in the right direction.”

RWU - along with the rail unions and various citizens groups - have also been pushing on the legislative front at both the state and federal levels for a law that would outlaw single employee train crew operations. A number of states - most recently California - have outlawed single employee train operations, while a dozen or so more have bills pending. At the federal level, HR #1763 if adopted, would make the minimum train crew size of two employees - a certified engineer and a certified conductor - the law of the land. Opinion polls that have been conducted on the question find that more than 80% of the U.S. population favor such a law.

RWU will prepare a written statement in the coming weeks to submit to the FRA in the hope of improving the Proposed Rule. In addition, the organization plans to keep up its educational work and continue to mobilize railroad workers, citizens groups and environmental organizations to get behind efforts to outlaw single crew operations of trains.

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.

Railroad Workers Fight Proposed Job Consolidation

By Jon Flanders - CounterPunch, October 13, 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.

With the unprecedented scrutiny freight railroads are now under due to oil train wrecks, and with record profits on the books, you would think that the major carriers would be unusually solicitous of their mechanical maintenance workforce, the people that are the doctors in the shop “hospitals” that treat the defects of locomotives. But you would be wrong.

One leading class 1 carrier, CSX, is demanding unprecedented changes in the working agreement of its
machinists and pipefitters, changes that could potentially turn the lives of these workers upside down. A “Master Mechanic” tentative agreement (TA) is currently being discussed in its locomotive shops.

In a promotional press release a CSX spokesman said: “This agreement is part of CSX’s focus on promoting a flexible workforce to meet changing business demands, and developing opportunities to retain and support our highly skilled workforce,” said Cressie Brown, vice president-labor relations, CSX.

The CSX press release quoted the head of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 19 in support of the agreement. “This tentative agreement provides new options for CSX employees, giving them more control of their careers, by expanding on the efficiencies gained from our previous partnership at Huntington, West Virginia while providing CSX with the tools they need to have the most efficient locomotive maintenance team in the industry,” said Jeff Doerr, IAM President and Directing General Chairman.

The Huntington “partnership” saw machinists and pipefitters foregoing former job descriptions in return for keeping locomotive rebuilding from outsourcing. There was no merging of union representation however, a “ratio” of machinists to pipefitters assured the two unions of their dues. The same ratio deal goes along with the proposed tentative agreement. So for example perhaps 85 percent of the jobs going forward would be machinists, 15 percent pipefitters.

Threatening major layoffs if the machinists and pipefitters, members of the International Association of Machinists(IAM) and the the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMART) fail to ratify it, CSX is pulling out all the stops to see the TA passed.

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