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An Open Letter to Our Allies in the Fight for Safe Rails and a Sustainable Environment

Open Letter - By Railroad Workers United, June 7, 2017

No More Lac-Mégantics – Drop the Charges

July 6th marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning in early September this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers.

Some of us focus on how dangerous this kind of cargo is. Trains carrying volatile crude are called “Bomb Trains” for a reason. Some of us focus more on rail safety, no matter what or who is on the train. We push for safer work schedules and big enough train crews to handle an unusual situation or an emergency. Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

You’d expect railroaders to point the finger at management. But we’re not the only ones. Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. Instead railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie will be on trial this fall in Quebec. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

Railroad Workers United is going to mark the Lac-Mégantic anniversary wherever we are. We’ll stand in solidarity with the people of Lac-Mégantic like we have for four years, and talk about rail safety. That’s who we are. But we’ll make sure to point out that scapegoating two railroad workers for this tragedy will make railroads and communities across the continent less safe.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

Justice for Lac-Mégantic requires Dropping the Charges Against Harding & Labrie

Sign on to this appeal! - Contact: (202) 798-3327 | info@railroadworkersunited.org

By Delaying Chemical Safety Rule, Pruitt Endangers First Responders and Refinery Towns

By Daniel Ross - Truthout, May 18, 2017

At 8:48 a.m. on the morning of February 18, 2015, an explosion at the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery in Southern California ripped through the facility with such ferocity, the resulting shockwaves registered on the Richter scale. Dust was scattered over the densely populated neighborhood up to a mile away from the blast. Four workers suffered minor injuries. A hulking 40-ton chunk of debris from the refinery's Electrostatic Precipitator narrowly avoided hitting a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of highly toxic modified hydrofluoric acid.

The damning findings of a Chemical Safety Board (CSB) review of the accident were made public earlier this month. Among some of the problems identified in the report: the refinery repeatedly violated ExxonMobil's corporate safety standards leading up to the incident, while multiple gaps existed in the refinery's safety systems.

"It was only sheer luck that the hydrofluoric acid tank wasn't hit," said Dr. Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. If it had been hit, the collision could have released a toxic ground-hugging cloud with the potential to kill for nine miles and cause serious and irreversible injuries for up to 16 miles under worst-case scenario projections, she added.

"This is yet another symptom of how in our country we always put profit ahead of safety," Hayati said.

Just before Obama exited office, his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put in place a new federal rule setting tougher safety procedures at facilities covered by the EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP). The rule is designed to prevent accidents like the 2015 Torrance refinery explosion from happening again, and to better protect first-responders and the communities perched in the shadow of facilities that store and use potentially dangerous chemicals.

According to EPA data, over 1,500 accidents were reported by RMP facilities between 2004 and 2013, causing more than $2 billion in property damages.

The new rule was supposed to come into effect in March. But after a petition opposing the rule was filed by a coalition of trade associations, the EPA initially stayed its implementation for three months. Then, after various states and companies in the refining, oil and gas, chemical and manufacturing sector filed further petitions, the EPA proposed to extend the stay an additional 20 months -- until February 19, 2019 -- in order to win time to consider these various petitions, and to possibly "revise" the RMP amendments.

Fearing that the EPA under Scott Pruitt will take the side of industry and further delay, weaken or even try to abrogate the new rule entirely, a coalition of community groups, scientists and environmental organizations filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit last month.

"We don't expect Pruitt to defend [the rule]," said Gordon Sommers, associate attorney with Earthjustice, who filed the motion on behalf of the coalition. In a letter to the EPA last year when still Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt asked the agency to withdraw the rule, citing national security concerns.

"We know where he stands and we know that his arguments are the same arguments that the big industries are making," said Sommers. "We know his priority is not protecting these communities."

How We're Surviving Right to Work: Oil Refinery Workers Get People in Motion

By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

The key is collective action, says Steelworkers Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell. His union represents 4,000 workers in California and Nevada, many of them at oil refineries where workers get a window of opportunity to drop their membership each time the contract comes up for renegotiation. In each refinery of 300-600 workers, the union maintains around 90 percent membership.

That's because members have the habit of acting for themselves as a union on the shop floor. Union leaders encourage members to bolster a grievance with workplace action. For instance, a supervisor had forbidden people to wear baseball caps, sunglasses, or Hawaiian shirts in the control room. Workers collected signatures on a petition and presented it to the other supervisor, who crumpled it up and threw it away.

“We organized all four crews to show up for work with Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and ball caps,” Campbell says, “and the union bought the roast pig for a Hawaiian luau lunch. When the superintendent saw all the workers united, he of course asked what the hell was going on—and the supervisor who had caused all this was reassigned.”

Besides being fun and effective, these activities give workers the chance to learn by doing. “In essence they see what the union really is,” Campbell says. “The union is them, and it’s their concerted, collective activity on the shop floor which gives the union power.”

Face it: We are all sickened by inequality at work

By Sharan Burrow - Hazards, April 28, 2017

When Babul Khan lost two of his four sons in an inferno at Gadani shipbreaking yard on 1 November 2016, it was a tragedy but it wasn’t a surprise. Like all the 26 workers who were killed when an oil tanker was blasted apart at Pakistan’s largest shipbreaking yard, 18-year-old Ghulam Hyder and 32-year-old Alam Khan were insecure workers. Disposable workers.

The yard was shut in the immediate wake of the deaths. Soon, though, it was business as usual – and that meant, inevitably, more deaths. At least five workers died in a fire on a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) container ship at the shipbreaking yard on 9 January 2017. The yard was making money; a steady stream of horrific fatalities was just collateral damage.

Who lives and who dies at work is not an accident of chance. The emergence of increasingly precarious forms of employment in convoluted supply chains was as deliberate as it was deadly.1 It creates a working world where the bad actors set a wage, conditions and employment rights benchmark which sucks down conditions across the global economy.

Maintaining a system of indecent work has always required an extra ingredient – a divided workforce. Where workers do not have a collective voice and where jobs are by design segregated by gender, race or class those divisions can perpetuate disadvantage and leave the most exploited workers powerless while undercutting the conditions of the rest.

All this comes at a price.2 At the top of the workplace pecking order, those making the decisions don’t just receive multipliers more in income and perks, they get to live many years longer to enjoy them.

Where workers do not have a collective voice and where jobs are by design segregated by gender, race or class those divisions can perpetuate disadvantage and leave the most exploited workers powerless while undercutting the conditions of the rest.

Disillusioned Shell Whistleblower Runar Kjoersvik

By John Donovan - Royal Dutch Shell Plc.com, March 17, 2017

We have published a series of articles about Runar Kjoersvik, the Norwegian safety expert who in 2014 was dismissed by Shell on trumped-up charges.

Evidence was gathered in a covert surveillance operation as part of a vicious campaign conducted against him by Shell Norway senior management.

Runar was twice elected by his fellow workers, first as a SAFE Union representative and subsequently as the Main Safety Delegate.

His election was not a fluke. The employees who elected him at the Nyhamna Gas Plant in Norway knew Runar was fully qualified. He had attended several Norwegian law and HSE courses where he learnt how to protect legal rights according to rules, regulations and Norwegian Law. He also earned a diploma of strategic leadership from college university.

So in general, he had very skilled training and a long education that has led him to different managerial positions in several international companies giving him flawless feedback prior to his time at Shell.

He was, therefore, confident that his skills for managing the Main Safety Delegate position were first-rate and genuinely believed he could do a good job both for his co-workers and for A/S Norske Shell.

Senior plant managers congratulated Runar on achieving the Main Safety Delegate position and told him:

You will now be able to make an influence on Shell in a greater perspective, you will get to know the organisation, and make an influence through the work environment committee. This will be very positive for your future development and career.

Runar was also impressed by Shell’s claimed core values: honesty, integrity and respect for people, set within codes of conduct and ethics.

The future looked good. A responsible job and a decent employer.

The promising outlook did not last very long.

The Day of Mourning for injured and killed workers was invented by Canada. Now we're killing more workers than anyone

By Ed Finn - Rabble.Ca, April 28, 2017

April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. This is the second of a two-part series. read part one here.

The lack of safety in Canada's workplaces is a national -- and international -- disgrace. Many of our industries neglect safety training, skimp on safety equipment and keep employees unaware of the danger of new chemicals. In our fiercely competitive global market, they will put the maximization of profits ahead of the "costly" provision of safe workplaces -- as long as they can get away with it.

Our governments, too, have given on-the-job safety an inexcusably low priority. Oh yes, they've beefed up work safety rules, even given workers the right to refuse dangerous duties, the right to sit on industrial health and safety committees -- even the right to be informed about the dangers of any material they are obliged to handle.

But, as with Bill C-45, no such legal rights can be exercised without managerial retaliation unless workplaces are regularly inspected and safety laws strictly enforced. And on that score, our federal and provincial governments have fallen shamefully short.

Without stringent government oversight, employers are left free to flout safety rules and regulations. They can maintain their profits-before-personnel policy with virtual impunity.

Gov’t prepares trial of framed-up Quebec rail workers

By John Steele - The Militant, February 20, 2017

At a Jan. 26-27 hearing here, Superior Court judge Gaétan Dumas began to set the stage for the September trials of framed-up union locomotive engineer Tom Harding and dispatcher Richard Labrie, along with Jean Demaitre, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway manager.

The rail workers are being framed by the government for the July 2013 derailment and explosion of a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic crude oil train in downtown Lac-Mégantic, a city of 6,000 near the Quebec-Maine border. The disaster killed 47 people and leveled the town center. All three are charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence and could face life in prison if convicted. Harding and Labrie are members of United Steelworkers Local 1976.

The judge ruled that the bankrupt and dissolved railroad, which has no assets or legal counsel, will be tried separately.

“The prosecution has absolutely no intention of going after the MMA,” Thomas Walsh, one of Harding’s lawyers, told the Militant Jan. 30. “They want to go after Tom Harding. The charges against the MMA are window dressing.”

An exposé in the Toronto Globe and Mail and the official report of the Transportation Safety Board have made it crystal clear that it was the railway bosses’ profit-driven disregard for safety, and complicity of the federal government agency Transport Canada, that were responsible for the disaster.

Under a strict Montreal, Maine and Atlantic policy to save time and money, the Globe showed, Harding was forbidden from activating the train’s automatic air brakes, which would have prevented the parked train from rolling into Lac-Mégantic that night. And Transport Canada gave the MMA approval to run their dangerous oil trains with a bare bones “crew” of one.

Separating the railroad out for its own trial is reasonable, Charles Shearson, who spoke for Harding at the hearing, told the Militant. “The jury will have more focus on the trial of Harding and the others.”

“We believe the judge should call the prosecutors’ bluff and hold the trial of the MMA before the trial of Harding, Labrie and Demaitre,” Walsh said.

Shearson said another pretrial hearing set for April will address a motion by Walsh to enter the Transportation Safety Board report and supporting documents as evidence, and to let the defense call board officials to question them.

Robert Bellefleur, spokesperson for the Citizens’ and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Mégantic, which is campaigning for the government to build a rail bypass around the town, attended the hearing to show the widespread support for Harding in Lac-Mégantic.

Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny, a writer who is working on a book about the disaster, also came. “One cannot but wonder how justice can be totally served in such a tragedy, when only low-ranking employees are on the stand for the death of 47 people,” she told the Militant. “Those who gave the orders, set the rules and ran the training — those who own the company — are all off limits, holed up in United States.”

“The fight against the frame-up of Harding and Labrie is important for working people across the country and elsewhere,” said Philippe Tessier, Communist League candidate for mayor of Montreal, who attended the hearing in solidarity. “Defeating this frame-up will strengthen the ongoing fight by rail workers everywhere who are struggling for rail safety, for themselves and all those who live and work along the tracks.”

Messages in support of 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.

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.

Without the Union…

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 20, 2016

By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It  didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.

At one time, it seemed as though there were more union miners than non-union in central Appalachia. Throughout the mid-1970s and 80s, dozens of large union mining complexes (mines with attached coal preparation facilities and rail service) were operating in the region. These complexes employed thousands of men, and many women.

As I understood it, life was good for those who worked at the complexes. Miners made a union wage, had union benefits including guaranteed days off, voluntary overtime, excellent retirement and healthcare benefits, and worker’s rights that enhanced the safety culture at the mine. The sheer size of the complexes also gave the miner’s many amenities not found at smaller truck mines, including large “clean” and “dirty” locker rooms with heated floors, showering facilities, and even paved parking lots. But they weren’t to last. The seams that supported larger facilities were rapidly depleted as more mechanized forms of mining, such as long wall systems, were being implemented.

And then the coal markets busted.

The dark side of Christmas: the impact on sweatshops

By Amoge Ukaegbu - New Internationalist, December 8, 2016

It’s not elves, but underpaid Chinese workers working around the clock that will enable you to unwrap your presents, writes Amoge Ukaegbu.

Television screens are filled with Christmas advertising, propagating the apparent need to buy something, and above all electronics, apparel, toys – the most popular Christmas gifts. The festive countdown is well underway.

Three points specifically define the ‘festive’ season: advertisements and commercialisation, shopping and spending, and increased revenue for the Western economy. Data from Capgemini and new in the UK’s industry association for e-retail, the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), reveal that in 2015, British retailers took in over £24 billion (roughly $30 billion) during the Christmas period alone, more than the entire GDP of countries like Nepal or Honduras. This spending craze is linked with advertisement and the increasing consumerism promoted by mass-, and now social media.

US discount events, hyperbolically labelled ‘Black Friday’ and Cyber Monday’, have been transposed across Europe, with the periods before Christmas and between Christmas and New Year’s Day becoming the busiest spending times in our annual calendars.

Over last year’s discount weekend, British consumers spent a whopping £3.3 billion ($4.16 billion). Masses took to the internet to buy, spending £968 million on Cyber Monday alone, causing the websites of large UK retailers, including Argos, Tesco and John Lewis, to crash. Struggling to cope with the surge of online purchased goods, courier firms imposed daily caps on the number of orders accepted from online retailers.

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