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Railroad Workers United

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.

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.

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.

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.

Resolution Against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Resolution passed by Railroad Workers United - November 2, 2016

Whereas, the  unprecedented  $3.78  Billion,  1,172-mile  Dakota  Access  Pipeline would carry over half a million barrels of dirty crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in  North  Dakota,  through  South  Dakota  and  Iowa  to  Illinois  to  connect  to  other pipelines bringing oil to the East Coast and the Gulf; and

Whereas, the  pipeline  is slated to pass through the tribal lands of Standing Rock Sioux  near  Cannon  Ball,  North  Dakota,  and  underneath  the  Missouri  River,  the main source of water for the tribe; and

Whereas, the  pipeline  is  slated  to  pass  under  the  Missouri  River  a  second  time before  passing  under  the  Mississippi  River,  a  total  watershed  coving  40%  of  the continental United States; and

Whereas, the pipeline has already disturbed the lives of millions of Americans; and

Whereas, millions  of  workers--including  many  union  members  and  their  their families--live in communities that are in thepath of the proposed pipeline; and

Whereas, the transport of heavy crude is particularly volatile, leading to 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked, or released into the air, land, and waterways  between  2006  and  2014  in  North  Dakota  alone,  causing  death,  contamination of soil and water, and numerous types of disease; and

Whereas, scientists  have  warned  that  in  order  to  avoid  wide-scale,  catastrophic climate disruption, the vast majority of known remaining fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground; and

Whereas, people  engaged  in  protecting  their  land  and  water  have  been  brutally attacked by private security forces in both Iowa and North Dakota; and

Whereas, Native  Americans  and  other  activists  defending  their  land  and  water have  the  same  right  to  defend  their  land  and  engage  in  non-violent  protest  as workers who are protesting the actions of an unfair employer; and

Whereas, the  U.S.  Congress  has  repealed  the  ban  on  exporting  oil,  meaning  that the oil transported by the pipeline is likely to be sold overseas and not contribute to US energy independence; and

Whereas, we know that a very real threat to workers’ lives and livelihoods is the prospect of catastrophic climate change; and

Whereas pipelines  accidents,  such  as  the  recent  Helena,  Alabama  gas  pipeline explosion  which  killed  one  and  injured  five,  pose  a  threat  to  workers  and  their communities; and

Whereas, many  large  corporations,  and  especially  fossil  fuel  corporations,  have been  putting  profits  ahead  of  the  common  good  of  workers,  the  public,  and  the environment, and these corporations have been unjustly granted the constitutional  rights  and  powers of “person-hood”, diminishing  democracy and  the  voice  and power of the people; and

Whereas, numerous national and international unions have already passed resolutions against construction of the pipeline, including National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Communications Workers of America, the United Electrical Workers, Service Employees International Union, and others; and

Whereas, these unions have an economic, environmental and racial justice strategy which has been employed to win membership strikes through broad base support by non-unionized workers and community members; and

Whereas, unions  in  support  of  Standing  Rock,  and  against  the  Dakota  Access  Pipeline  have  come  under  attack from reactionary unions who have engaged in the bad practice of collaborating with bosses, such as the virulently anti-union Koch Brothers; and

Whereas, Railroad  Workers  United  is  already  on  record  supporting  the  development  of  a  just  transition  plan  for

workers affected by fossil fuel elimination; and

Whereas, more long-term good paying jobs would be created by investing in sustainable energy infrastructure projects using already existing technologies while at the same time reducing greenhouse gases; and

Whereas, we support the rights of our union brothers and sisters building the pipeline to work in safe environments at jobs that are consistent with respect for the environment and the rights and safety of frontline communities;

Therefore Be  it Resolved, that we call upon the Federal Government to  make permanent the moratorium  on  construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by revoking permits for construction issued by the Army Corps of Engineers; and

Be it Further Resolved, that Railroad Workers United calls on the labor movement to support a just transition to a renewable energy  economy  and  investment  in  the  construction  of a  nationwide sustainable energy  infrastructure that will address the growing threat of climate change and its consequent droughts, floods, fire, crop failure, species extinction and other dire consequences of global warming;

Be it Finally Resolved, Railroad Workers United urges all railroad craft unions and the rest of the labor movement to become actively involved in promoting a just transition to a sustainable alternative energy economy that protects the  environment and respects  the rights of all working people to good paying safe  jobs, human  rights and justice for all.

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.

NO! Single Employee Train Crews

By Karl (Fritz) Edler - Railroad Music, July 15, 2016

Oral comments on Train Crew Staffing
Docket Number FRA-2014-0033
RIN 2130-AC48

Good Morning,

My name is Fritz Edler. I recently retired after more than 37 years working for railroads, the last 25 years on the engine. I’m here for the literally millions of passengers who entrusted their safety to me and the other members of my train crews. I’m also here as a Special Representative for Railroad Workers United, an international cross-craft solidarity and advocacy organization. Our membership extends over most major and many lessor railroad systems in North America, passenger and freight. Nobody cares more about train safety than the men and women who work on the railroad.

I feel obliged to mention a third group as well. I just returned from the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. I was one of the speakers at the 3rd anniversary commemoration of the rail tragedy. Three years ago this month, 47 people died when a runaway oil train crashed and burned. I can’t presume to speak for them, or for the 27 Lac-Mégantic orphans.

But the truth is, this hearing is happening because of that train tragedy. The Lac-Mégantic wreck was the biggest international exposé of the dangers of single crew operations, although there was a long history leading to that incident. Lac-Mégantic is why there is FRA consideration of a Train Crew Staffing rule. The evidence is now clear from multiple investigations that single crew operation at Mégantic was a proximal cause of that wreck.

Safety rules are sadly often forged in fire. Fire safety rules in tall buildings came after 146 garment workers perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. Now new Train Crew Rules will come from 47 graves in Lac-Mégantic in 2013.

I have appended the full statement submitted by Railroad Workers United to my remarks here. Let me summarize. One-person train operations are NOT safe.

The FRA should not be in the business of making rules for the unsafe operation of trains. The FRA should not be telling carriers that there might be some circumstances that would allow more risky operation of trains. The FRA should not be producing a roadmap or a manual on how to get “special” approval to run unsafe trains. That is a specific lesson of Lac-Mégantic.

No carrier promises or new operating rules and procedures change the basic fact that one-person trains are LESS SAFE. The FRA should not be working with the carriers to make them just a little bit less unsafe. The record is clear. The rail industry is incapable of self-regulating to eliminate the real risk of death from single crew operation. There are no credible authorities that support single crewmember operations as being as safe as multiple crewmember operations over time. Every time a one-person train goes out it is a high-risk gamble.

Former FRA Director Szabo was right when he said, “… safety dictates you never allow a single point of failure.” Not rarely allow, NEVER.

The FRA already has all the evidence demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that one-person trains are more unsafe. All railroaders know it. The airlines use co-pilots. Nobody would fly on a 777 that had a one-person crew. Freight trains are twenty times longer than the biggest 777. They are often longer than the airport runway and there is no autopilot for trains.

Even the carriers will say they don’t plan to run many one-person crew trains, but they want the flexibility, just in case. Just in case of what? A tight deadline? A drop in stock prices? Upcoming negotiations with the unions? Failure to fill vacant jobs?

There are already too many commonplace problems in regular rail operations that require more than one crewmember. At Lac-Mégantic single crew operations were accompanied by a simultaneous reduction of qualified backup crewmembers available for safety assurance. Carrier cost cutting and lax regulatory enforcement are a recipe for disaster

I wish I could have told the Lac-Mégantic survivors that the United States government has commemorated this tragedy by making sure no one-person train runs on any US railroad. We could even call it the “Lac-Mégantic Rule.”

It is not too late. The final FRA rule should not be a yellow light with an arrow saying, This Way To 1-Person Crew Trains. It should be a bright red light, a Stop Signal. If sometime in the future there is some new development in train operation that meets a strong scientific standard for train safety, the FRA should convene a new hearing and develop new rules. But today there is no safe way to operate trains with one-person crews. So the only rule called for is no one-person trains.

If the FRA fails, as did their Canadian counterparts, to guarantee minimum crew standards that prohibit single crew operations, it is absolutely certain that more people will die. In Canada in the aftermath of the disaster, the Trudeau government is scrambling to try to make up for the industry self-regulation that led to an industry that has reported more runaway trains each year since 2013, the year of the wreck. Communities and rail workers across the continent are watching and expecting the FRA to act to prevent even more deaths from such risky operations.

EcoUnionist News #110: No Coal in Oakland Prevails and other Green Union news

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 29, 2016

Image, right: Alameda County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council president, Josie Camacho, flanked by dozens of Bay Area union leaders and members, representing 21 Bay Area unions (including the Bay Area IWW), join in with Oakland residents to oppose coal handling, storage, shipment, and exports in the Port of Oakland at a special City Council hearing, held June 27, 2016. At the conclusion of the meeting, the City Council voted unanimously, 7-0 with one member absent, in support of the coal ban. Image by Brooke Anderson.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Ongoing Mobilizations:

The Thin Green Line:

Just Transition:

The Revolution Will Be On Rail, Part I

By Matt Stannard - Occupy.Com, June 14, 2016 (image by Jon Flanders)

Trains have the ability to move America into a post-carbon economy with fewer cars, cleaner air and stronger communities. But railroad bosses are telling their workers they have to support more oil and coal extraction, and faster, more dangerous train routes in order to keep their jobs.

John Paul Wright is concerned about this contradiction. The husband and father is a locomotive engineer, union and labor organizer, and a singer of protest songs. As the national lead organizer for [Railroad Workers United] and a member of the organization’s steering committee, part of his job is bringing together railroad unions who’ve been told by the bosses that they have incompatible views and interests. “This is the very nature of big business craft unionism,” he tells me. “The workers are caught in the middle.”

Wright says that “the railroad could be the most efficient way to move anything we move today. But we’ve been sold on an economy that doesn’t represent our best interests.”

Part of our job as storytellers and advocates for a new economy is to articulate how the interests of working people converge with those of a healthy and just planet. Trains are a crucial part of that picture. “The railroads built the small towns, passenger service was the transportation policy before cars,” Wright says, “and small farming communities had access to larger markets.”

But now, the trains and often the land on which they travel are owned by big corporations. “So us workers are forced to move whatever America wants. We move coal, oil, products from sweatshops overseas, fertilizer, plastics, etc,” he says. All because corporate capitalism “sees no profit in a transportation policy built on service and access.”

This isn’t just the market following around people’s preferences like a faithful dog. The story of the decline of public transportation and railways is one of criminal manipulation by capitalists, not honest brokering. In the first half of the 20th century, a group of executives colluded to buy and literally dismantle the electric train systems in many of America’s major cities in order to artificially create a market for oil, cars, trucks and eventually an interstate system.

America’s public transit was like a Library of Alexandria for the United States: if it had survived and been regularly upgraded, we’d have quite a system today, one that would likely be transitioning to completely renewable power, as smaller nations are in the process of doing.

The potential ecological and socioeconomic benefits of rail are overwhelming. For transport of goods, trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. They also reduce highway gridlock, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce pollution. For personal travel, trains emit on average between 80 and 90 percent less carbon output than airplanes per passenger.

Although some trains still run on diesel and oil, and a growing number of cars are hybrid or totally electric, trains could make the jump forward by going totally renewable, as they have in other countries. And a well-planned and executed mass transit system could make travel virtually free, replacing vehicles that are expensive to buy and maintain.

As usual it comes down to who makes the decisions: citizens and railway workers, or corporate shareholders and bosses. The corporations are in control now, and the results are unsafe trains that are about to become even less safe due to labor-saving proposals to decrease crew members; trains speeding through ecologically sensitive areas carrying lethal crude oil and frequently causing spills and explosions; and a passenger transit system that doesn’t come close to living up to its efficiency potential. Contrary to what the railway bosses are telling workers and the public, these issues are interrelated and must be part of an agenda for economic and ecological justice.

Railroad Workers United Former Co-Chair and Organizer Mark Burrows Speaks at Chicago Break Free Rally

On Sunday, May 15th in Whiting, Indiana, former RWU Co-Chair Mark Burrows was invited to speak to a group of community members and environmental activists about rail safety. Mark touched on the Lac Megantic tragedy and frame-up of railroad workers in Canada, crew fatigue and single employee train crews.

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