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Protecting Baltimore from Oil Trains

By Jennifer Kunze - Clean Water Action, February 12, 2016

Oil production in North America has skyrocketed in the past five years, with industries using increasingly dangerous and desperate technologies to extract fossil fuels from the ground. Particularly in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota, the cheapest way for companies to move oil to profitable markets is to load it onto trains and send it to the coast, where refineries and export terminals can transform it into fuel and transport it to wherever they can find the best price. With increasing oil production comes increasing oil train transport – and a mind-boggling increase in oil train accidents. When train cars carrying crude oil derail or hit something, they often puncture; when they do, a slight spark can set off a fiery explosion that turns the train car into a bomb.

Trains carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota travel through Baltimore constantly – 100 million gallons traveled through the city last year. The trains enter the city in the Morrell Park neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore and pass near the stadiums, follow a tunnel underneath Howard Street, continue underground along 26th Street through Remington and Charles Village (where a retaining wall collapsed onto the tracks two years ago), through Clifton Park, and exit through East Baltimore on their way to Philadelphia. Other trains travel from Morrell Park to South Baltimore, where the oil is transferred to ships and sent on the Patapsco River and through the Chesapeake Bay. Every neighborhood and watershed the trains cross is in danger – if you live within a mile of the tracks, you could be impacted by an explosion.

I first learned about oil trains in July 2013, after the tragedy in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In the middle of the night, a train carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota rolled down the tracks alone, reached a speed of 60 miles per hour, derailed in the middle of downtown, and exploded. Forty-seven people were killed, half of downtown was destroyed, and the town is forever scarred by the oil contamination. Since this terrible accident, oil by rail transport has only increased – but communities are getting educated, getting organized, and fighting back.

Apocalypse on Trial

By Stephyn Quirke - Street Roots News, January 21, 2016

Video: Delta5 Defendents and supporters sing a version of I've Been Working on the Railroad by Railroad Workers United organizer and IWW member, J.P. Wright in honor of the links of solidarity they forged with railroad workers during their struggle.

On Jan. 15, Snohomish County Judge Anthony E. Howard handed down sentences to five people who say our political system is rigged to destroy the planet.

The trial was the latest in a series of protests against the increasing volumes of fossil fuels traveling through the Pacific Northwest, bound for Asian markets, despite the considerable damage to regional eco-systems already resulting from climate change, including ocean acidification, loss of snowpack in the Cascades, rising stream temperatures and summer deadzones along the coast.

In September 2014, Abby Brockway, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Mike LaPointe and Liz Spoerri locked themselves to a 20-foot tripod at the BNSF railroad’s Delta yard in downtown Seattle. Dubbed the Delta 5, their protest was designed to draw attention to the danger of crude oil on rail lines in the Pacific Northwest, and to their contribution to irreversible climate change.

In a historic and highly anticipated trial that lasted four days, the Delta 5 were allowed to argue that their action was the lesser of two evils when compared to the status quo. In court shorthand, it’s called the necessity defense. Specifically, the Delta 5 presented evidence and legal arguments showing that their occupation of BNSF property was necessary to protect the public’s safety, calling numerous expert witnesses who testified to the public health risks of oil trains, both in their immediate risks to neighborhoods and to the damages climate change is bringing to Washington state. They included Richard Gammon, professor of chemistry and oceanography at the University of Washington, and Fred Milar, a hazardous-materials expert and former consultant to the railroad industry.

In another groundbreaking lawsuit concluded in November, King County Superior Judge Hollis Hill ruled that the state of Washington had a constitutional duty to uphold the public trust in natural resources and that this created a binding obligation for the state to protect the atmosphere for future generations. In an unusually dire ruling, Hill said, “Survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming … before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”

One of the elders in that room was Abby Brockway. Reflecting on the trial, she recalled, “Everybody wants to kick the can down the road. … They said, ‘Well, the Legislature’s supposed to do it,’ and they’re saying ‘No, ecology’s supposed to do it,’ so nobody wants to try.”

Andrea Rodgers, who represented eight youth plaintiffs in the November climate lawsuit, who in turn brought the lawsuit on behalf of future generations, explained: “What Judge Hill said in our case is really important for the world to know: that the climate crisis is real, it’s happening now, and the government in Washington state is not doing anything to address it. And they need to step up and protect the fundamental rights of these people. … People are starting to speak out and defend their own rights in a variety of ways, and hopefully the judges of the justice system will catch up with that.”

Eco Wobbles: the Lesser Known Story about the Delta 5 Case

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 22, 2016

By now, dear readers, you may have heard about the victory of the Delta 5, but in case you hadn't, here's a short review: In September 2014 five activists, Patrick Mazza, Mike LaPoint, Abby Brockway, Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minchew, entered the BNSF Delta railyard in Everett, Washington, and blocked an oil train with a tripod of steel rods to which they locked themselves. Motivated by frustration about the climate, workers safety and public health from the recklessness of the oil and railroad industries, they stayed on the tracks for eight hours before BNSF police arrested and charged them with trespassing and obstructing a train.

At their trial, during the first half of January 2016, they introduced the "necessity defense." They argued that their actions were not a crime because they were necessary to prevent a much greater harm, climate disruption and the immediate threat of oil train derailments, spills, and explosions.

To establish the necessity of their action the defense brought in expert witnesses to testify about the urgency of climate disruption, the danger from oil trains, railroad industry’s disregard for worker safety and the fact that pollution from trains is already killing people. Their testimony went largely unchallenged by the prosecution. Judge Anthony E Howard, who presided over the case, even expressed some sympathy for the activists, but at the end of the trial ruled that the jury would have to disregard these arguments because the defense had not sufficiently demonstrated that there was no other legal alternative to achieve the same ends. "Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change," Howard said from the bench. But, he added: "I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal beliefs might be." With those very narrow set of instructions, the jury returned with their verdict -- finding the Delta 5 guilty of trespassing, but not guilty of obstructing a train. The obstructing a train charge carried a potentially much more serious penalty.

After the trial was over and the Delta 5 and jury were released three of the six jurors came back into the courthouse, hugged the defendants, and sat with them and their supporters while they were sentenced by the judge.

While the ruling can still be appealed by BNSF, for now climate justice activists are celebrating the ruling as a partial victory, though not a resounding victory, because Judge Howard ruled out the possibility of using the "Neccessity Defense".

What's less talked about, however, is that this case represents another small victory, in this case (no pun intended) a victory for Green Unionism. During the blockade, Abby Brockway (shown in the accompanying image) sat atop a tripod which bore a sign which read: "Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors - #Greens4Rails" which was in reference to a concurrent rank and file BNSF railroad workers' struggle (aided in large part by the organizers of Railroad Workers United (RWU)) to beat-back a concessionary contract proposal (detailed on ecology.iww.org) which would have allowed for the reduction in train-crew size from two to one employee. This was directly relevant to the Delta 5's blockade, because the latter were concerned about stopping any future disasters like the crude-by-rail train derailment which killed 47 people and devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, in which an overworked and poorly trained Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer, Tom Harding, had been the single employee on the train in question.

The rank and file railroad workers' fight against concessions succeeded. The Delta 5's soldiarity with railroad workers (in addition to support from many other enviornmental activists) sent a clear message that these climate justice activists do not blame railroad workers for the careless profiteering of the fossil fuel corporations or the railroad bosses, and see the workers as potential allies. Indeed, partly as a result of such overtures, BNSF whistleblower and railroad worker, Mike Elliot, testified at the trial of the Delta 5 on behalf of the defendants, and though his testimony was ultimately not allowed by the judge to be used as evidence, it still offers a glimpse of the potential strength that both the labor and environmental movements can bring to each other.

There's still much to be worked out in the case of railroad workers and climate justice activists opposed to crude-by-rail, including matters of railroad workers' working conditions and just transition. And far too many railroad workers believe the lies their bosses tell them about environmentalists being responsible for the current downturn in railroad work (which is primarily due to the crash of the shale oil boom and the economic meltdown currently unfolding in China, both of which are typical busts in the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist market). Some initial groundwork took place during three conferences organized by RWU and others last year, called "Railroad Safety: Workers, Community & the Environment". On the heels of the Delta 5 victory, there's no better time to think about continuing that work. An Injury to One is an Injury to All!

Full Disclosure : In Resolution Form

By J.P. Wright - RailroadMusic.Org, January 1, 2016

Whereas:
2015 kicked my ass. I got way to involved in too many things. I burned out and now I am standing in the center of the highest point in my life. I would have to thank all that put up with me this year. To all that I put up with, I also thank. My family and the life that gives me is something that I cherish. I care, and that is a problem – for me …. It is the ultimate calling.

Whereas:
I spend hours at the throttle of my trains pondering how I can be of assistance. Dreaming of a way to get involved. Strategizing new ways to lend my voice to the struggle. I have done some amazing things and met some amazing people in 2015. When I say that, I am far from boasting. I was taught to share. To teach. To explore impossibilities as possible. I was raised like that. I must move, at all times.

Whereas:
My mind sometimes, in on fire – from a deep feeling that comes from my heart., I have Vision. I think deeply and sometimes get myself into very dark places. Sometimes, when I am playing music with the right people, i see things. I hear voices. I do not suggest anything by mentioning this, except what comes with the territory. This is the training, that comes from the job I do as a Djembefola. I accept it and have learned how to learn from it.

So be it resolved that:
In 2016, as that last page of my Chapbook suggests … I am closing shop. My training is over. I will be 46 years of age in January. I will never master this life. We are not supposed to, and any master you meet will always suggest that they are not, if they suggest that they are, they are not.

So be it further resolved that:
Many times, the answer really is, I do not know. That is the sign of a mastery of exploration. Follow a person who does not know and you will probably find your bliss. Your bliss is always following you, shadowing you as a possibility. I plan to turn around in 2016. I plan to focus. I make resolution to be.

So be it EVEN FURTHER resolved that:
I will never give up! This life requires it and my mother told me, I can be whatever I want to be – So Be It !!

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.

Railroads lay off hundreds and close routes in Appalachia

By Jeff Lusanne  - WSWS.org, October 29, 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 the rugged, mountainous region of Central Appalachia—covering West Virginia, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, and Western Virginia—many towns and cities exist because of a particular industry. Sometimes, the name of a town itself shows this: for example, Alloy, WV, where a silicon metal alloy plant is located on the banks of the Kanawha River. Countless towns were built around coal mines, many have which have faded away as mines closed, or become shells of their former prosperity. Indeed, Prosperity, WV is a place, located near the high-quality coal in Raleigh County.

The railroads, built through the challenging terrain of the Appalachian region to transport its valuable resources to domestic and international markets, created railroad towns. The sorting of traffic, maintenance of track and equipment, and administrative tasks created hundreds of jobs in cities across the region.

In the last two months, mass layoffs of railroad workers in response to falling coal traffic have called into question the fate of several towns that are inextricably linked to the railroad industry, where generations of workers have been employed by railroads.

The most severe blow was the sudden October 15 announcement by CSX Railroad that it was effectively ending operations in Erwin, Tennessee, a yard and maintenance base on a major route through the area. Employees of the railroad in Erwin heard the news in the morning at the beginning of their shifts, and then some spent their shift assembling all the equipment in the yard into the last train to leave town. When it did, 300 workers lost their jobs.

On October 20, CSX announced another 180 layoffs of yard and maintenance in Corbin, Kentucky, another major regional terminal. Due to declining coal traffic, the railroad closed the locomotive terminal and car shop, where workers inspect and maintain equipment. A hundred employees will remain and the terminal will stay open.

In both Corbin and Erwin, CSX stated that workers have the option of moving for work outside of the area—which could mean hundreds of miles away. An engineer wrote in the Erwin Record that with the last shift of crews, the conversation was “Where you going, Nashville? Birmingham? Etowah? Tampa?.” Followed by the “It’s been good working with you,” then “the handshakes, the hugs, the misty eyes, the turns and walks away.”

The positions of engineers, conductors, maintainers, and repairman were skilled operating or mechanical jobs with wages that are not commonly available elsewhere in the region, and their loss will have a devastating impact on the local economy and the workers affected.

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 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.

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.

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