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Railroad Workers United (RWU)

Public Ownership of Rail Is on the Agenda. Here’s What It Could Look Like

By Alex Press and Maddock Thomas - Jacobin, January 7, 2024

Nearly one year ago, on the night of February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Videos of the smoke and fire released by the nearly two-mile-long train went viral, and residents in the community reported severe health effects.

The rail disaster triggered an outcry: Why did this happen, and what can any of us do about it? Soon, there were articles detailing the alarming state into which the country’s railroads have fallen: accidents are up, and oversight is hard to come by. Plus, there is a severe squeeze on rail workers, many of whom lack sick days of any kind and are effectively always on call.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers spanning all thirteen national rail unions, recently released a video offering one answer to the rotten state of US rail. “Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership” opens in East Palestine, with a resident of the area showing the viewer photos he took the night of the Norfolk Southern derailment. The video goes on to make the case for public ownership of rail, which has been a focus for RWU over the past year.

As Ross Grooters, RWU cochair and a union locomotive engineer, told Jacobin, the workers came out with the demand amid their ugly contract fight in 2022, which ended with Joe Biden intervening to quash a potential rail strike.

“It became really clear between the contract negotiations and the fact that the railroad companies are making obscene amounts of money operating the railroads purely for the purpose of extracting wealth from what should be critical infrastructure, that the only way for rail to work would be outside the for-profit model that it exists in currently,” said Grooters.

So RWU passed a resolution endorsing the campaign. The case has been articulated by RWU members in several publications, from Jacobin to In These Times to FreightWaves, but with the release of RWU’s film, I wanted to hear more about the models under debate, so I called up Maddock Thomas, who is writing a policy paper on public rail ownership for RWU. We spoke about the current structure of rail ownership, alternative public models, and which country has the most functional rail system. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What Happened with the Rail Deal?

Socialize the Railways!

By Tom Wetzel - East Bay Syndicalists, November 13, 2023

The downward slide of the major (Class 1) American freight railroads in recent years shows how capitalist ownership of the railway system is dangerous and inefficient — and fails to make use of the potential of the railways as a solution to the global warming crisis.

Downward slide has been accelerated over the past decade due to the adoption of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). This has no precise definition but the aim is to reduce costs. As in “lean production” management theory, any expense not directly needed for profit is regarded as “waste.” PSR is a cost-cutting strategy that puts short-term profits for stockholders as the controlling priority. To maximize the rate of return, the railroads cut corners on maintenance, constantly work to reduce the number of railroad employees, and actively discourage shipments that are less profitable for them to haul. To keep Wall Street investors happy, they work to maximize short term profit. To enrich stockholders, the rail companies have poured billions of dollars into stock buybacks rather than invest in system improvements.

Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership

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Transportation Webinar: Where is This Train Going? Freight Rail in the Public Interest

RWU Resolution Calling for Solidarity with UAW Workers

By Ross Grooters, Gabe Christianson, and Andrew Weir - Railroad Workers United, September 6, 2023

Whereas, the US labor movement, including the railroad unions, face many obstacles in the fight to reverse the long decline of low membership; and

Whereas, autoworkers represented by the UAW are a significant workforce in the country and are battling against the “Big Three” automakers; and;

Whereas, solidarity action by other workers and unions along the supply chain can be the decisive factor in any battle between workers and employers; and

Whereas, a victory for UAW workers could embolden all workers to go on the offensive to win better contracts; and likewise, a victory for the new leadership of the UAW could embolden all union members looking to reform and democratize their own unions; and

Whereas, RWU recognizes the power that railroad workers have to assist UAW workers, as automobiles manufactured at UAW plants are loaded onto “autorack” railcars and transported by train daily throughout the U.S.; and

Whereas, the fight for electrification of the auto industry to happen through good, union jobs, has parallels to the fight for electrification of the North American railroads; and

Whereas, the fight to build links with auto workers in Mexico and Canada to fight back against the outsourcing of jobs to non-union workforces has parallels with the fight for railroad workers to get organized across North America as the railroad systems of the US, Mexico, and Canada become increasingly integrated;

Therefore, Be it Resolved that RWU offers full solidarity in support of UAW workers in their fight for strong contracts; and

Be it Further Resolved that RWU suggests that UAW workers organize picket lines at the rail entrance of any auto facilities that receive rail service, and that RWU calls on railroad workers and our unions to refuse to cross any UAW picket lines, which is a basic principle of labor movement solidarity; and

Be it Finally Resolved that RWU urges all of rail labor to likewise stand in solidarity with our UAW fellow workers.

Adopted by the RWU Steering Committee, September 6, 2023

Sierra Club Rail Transportation Statement

By Clyde Anderson, et. al. - Sierra Club, August 7, 2023

(Statement from Railroad Workers United): This report is fantastic for several reason, not the least of which is its quality and completeness. We respectfully disagree on the strategy of privatization but they do call for 'Open Access' which we see as a half measure at best. Electrification is a shared interest as the only realistic path to zero emissions while creating lots of union jobs on both sides of the wire. Rail workers will be especially intested in Pages 32-33.

(From the Summary): Effective rail transportation is essential to avert the worst effects of human-caused climate change. Increasing rail and transit, and moving away from our current heavy emphasis on road and air travel, will bring many environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Rail transportation is inherently much more energy efficient than road transport, especially for freight. Reducing one of the basic factors of production – transportation – reduces the costs of virtually every sector of the economy, thereby increasing sustainability. Electrifying railroad operations will further increase these benefits. Therefore, improving passenger and freight rail transportation needs to be a national priority for the US. The purpose of this statement is to inform the public about how rail is a sustainable transportation solution and to provide a guide to action to improve the nation’s railroads.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Rail Worker FIRED on BULLSH*T Charges

By Union Jake and Adam Keller with Michael Paul Lindsey and Max Alvarez - Valley Labor Report, July 20, 2023

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