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Solidarity with Railroad Workers

Outdoor Workers and Organizers in Miami are Fighting for a Countywide Heat Standard

By Alexandra Martinez - Prism, October 6, 2022

Marta Gabriel has been picking tomatoes in Homestead, Florida, since she arrived from Guatemala five years ago. She didn’t know how hot and grueling conditions would be, but the job guaranteed her money that she could use to support her growing family as a mother of young children. However, after she nearly fainted from heat exhaustion and then suffered heatstroke while bending down to cut tomatoes, Gabriel realized her working conditions were not sustainable. She was already a member of WeCount!, a coalition of immigrant workers in southern Florida, and shared her concerns with organizers. 

Hundreds of thousands of other outdoor workers across South Florida share Gabriel’s experience. Starting in 2017, they began telling organizers at WeCount! that heat had become an issue. Now, construction workers, farmworkers, and other outdoor workers across Miami-Dade County are fighting for a countywide heat standard to ensure workers are protected from the deadly rising temperatures on the frontlines of climate change and extreme heat.

As it stands, workers in southern Florida are forced to work outside in the extreme heat without any local, state, or federal heat standards. WeCount!’s “¡Que Calor!” campaign (Spanish for “it’s so hot!”) is hoping to enact a heat standard similar to the one states like California, Washington, or Oregon, have already implemented—one that highlights the need for water, shade, and rest for workers. Led by those most impacted by the problem—farmworkers, plant nursery workers, day laborers, and construction workers—¡Qué Calor! is building a grassroots movement for climate, health, and labor justice. 

OSU study finds higher rates of traumatic injuries for outdoor workers during hotter weather

By Molly Rosbach - Oregon State University, September 29, 2022

Rates of traumatic injury among workers in the Oregon agricultural and construction sectors are significantly higher during periods of high heat compared with periods of more moderate weather, a recent Oregon State University study found.

The results underscore the importance of providing robust safety protections for outdoor workers, especially as extreme heat events become more common with climate change, researchers said.

“The big take-home message I want people to get from this is that, if the temperature is high and you have workers out there, they’re more likely to be injured, whether it’s due to dehydration, reduction in mental capacity or exhaustion,” said Richie Evoy, lead author on the paper and a recent doctoral graduate from OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

The study, published earlier this month, examined Oregon workers’ compensation data from 2009-2018. Researchers looked at nearly 92,000 injury claims in which workers suffered temporary disability, permanent disability or death. They focused on injuries that occurred in the months of April through October because the average heat index was above 55 degrees for that period.

In addition to heat, researchers also investigated the impact of wildfire smoke on worker injury rates.

They matched injury records with meteorological data to estimate heat exposure based on the heat index, which combines the effects of temperature and humidity in the air, along with environmental satellite data to estimate exposure to wildfire smoke.

They found that workers in agricultural and construction jobs were significantly more likely to suffer a traumatic injury on days when the heat index was above 75 degrees, compared with a baseline of 65 degrees or less.

The effect worsened when the heat index climbed to over 90 degrees, with an increased risk of 19-29% over baseline as the index ranged from 90-119 degrees.

“These results support the need for occupational safety practitioners to include protections for workers during extreme heat,” said Laurel Kincl, co-author on the study and an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “While our study in based in Oregon, this is true in other states and regions since these conditions will likely become more frequent with climate change."

The impact of wildfire smoke was less clear. When researchers looked at smoke by itself, it was strongly associated with an increased risk of injury, but when they also incorporated heat index data into the analysis, the effect of wildfire smoke was no longer significant.

There are several potential reasons for this, researchers said. It could be that because wildfires happen more frequently in hot conditions, the smoke is coincidental to the heat; but smoke can sometimes also block the sun and reduce overall temperature.

Future studies should obtain more precise smoke exposure data to better understand the potential impact, researchers said. In using satellite imagery and data recorded from each day’s peak smoke exposure by zip code, Evoy said they couldn’t parse out exactly how much wildfire smoke individual workers were exposed to, or what was in that smoke, because of shifting winds and changes in what was burning at any given time.

“The way things stand now, wildfires are only going to increase in frequency and duration in Oregon and in the West, so the more we can do to understand the risks to our outdoor workers who are going to be experiencing these climate effects first, the better off those workers are going to be in protecting their health and staying productive,” Evoy said.

Just this summer, Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health division adopted new standards regarding wildfire and excessive heat stress. Employers are now required by law to provide workers with shade areas when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees, along with access to drinking water, a specific work-rest schedule and several other safety measures. A coalition of Oregon business groups are suing the state over these new rules, which were praised by worker advocacy groups.

Other co-authors on the OSU study included Perry Hystad and Harold Bae, both in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

Three Workers Dead in Grain Silo, Including a Child. OSHA Can Do Nothing

By Jordan Barab - Confined Space, September 22, 2022

In what may be the largest mass casualty workplace event this year, three workers were killed after being trapped in a grain silo in Pennsylvania. The workers included a 47-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old. A 16-year-old boy died at the same farm in March when he was trapped under a horse-drawn manure spreader that weighed more than 10 tons.

And despite the high death toll and age of the workers, neither OSHA nor the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division (which enforces child labor laws) can do anything about it.

The Center Daily Times reports that Andrew Beiler, 47, and his two sons — a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old whose names were not released — died of asphyxiation from “silo gas.” Apparently, “One of Beiler’s sons was working in the silo when his father checked on him, Michael said, citing first responder reports. The eldest Beiler jumped in to help, but was overcome by the gas. His second son followed, but was also overcome.”

Rescuers dying when trying to rescue the original victims is not uncommon in confined space or trenching incidents. Before OSHA’s confined space standard was issued in 1993, more rescuers died in confined spaces than initial victims.

Grain silos are well known death traps that kill dozens of workers, often children, every year. When grain gets stuck, workers often go in at the top of a silo to loosen the grain or “walk it down.” But when the grain starts flowing, it can suck the worker down like quick sand causing suffocation. Often multiple workers die when others go into the grain in an attempt to rescue the first victim. Although there has been no investigation yet, these deaths are currently being blamed on “silo gas” (usually carbon dioxide or nitrogen dioxide) which forms when grain decomposes and can result in a person collapsing and dying within minutes, either due to oxygen displacement or toxicity.

OSHA’s grain handling standard requires employers to protect workers by training them, stop the conveyor system that moves grain at the bottom of the silo, use safety harnesses and provide a trained observer to respond to trouble. The standard also requires the air to be tested before entry and that the silo be ventilated.

More on Railroad Safety

By staff - Climate-Rail Alliance, September 14, 2022

In addition to the issues that are about to bring about a nationwide railroad strike, there is another open safety issue. The railroad industry wants to operate trains with only one person on the train. This is unsafe in many ways, and even against the industry’s safety rules, but the bottom line is at stake.

The comment entry form for the proposed FRA rule is here: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FRA-2021-0032-0001

Once again, the railroad industry’s masters, the hedge fund managers, want to squeeze more for increased profits. If a few people are killed or injured in the process or lots of valuable stuff gets bent, they don’t care as long as doing all that is less expensive than doing things safely.

Please comment supporting a required minimum of two people responsible for operating a train.

STRIKE!

By admin - Climate Rail Alliance, September 14, 2022

The dispute between railroad labor and management is about to culminate in a nationwide strike. The strike action should be supported by everyone. It is not only a matter of pay and quality of life as generally depicted in media, it is about safety.

Background

The railway Labor Act of 1926 governs only the railroad and airline industries. The goal is to substitute arbitration and mediation for strikes, assuming these two to be essential to the economy and national security. The Act provides a very long procedure for the solution of labor-management disputes.

The next to last step is the appointment of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to assess the two sides and suggest a solution that will satisfy both sides.

In the recently appointed PEB, labor submitted wage grievances, but more importantly, quality of life grievances. Among the compensation grievances was away from home expenses. Railroad workers, particularly track maintenance and train crew personnel are away from home for long periods of time. The railroad pays for the lodging. The workers are expected to pay for food. They get a token amount for expenses, generally not enough for a single McDonalds meal per day. The balance is paid from their wages. When there is no expense increase allowed in addition to a wage increase, employees must pay from taxable earnings for work expenses.

The wage increase being offered by management is less than the rate of inflation since the last increase.

The railroad industry submitted to the PEB: The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.

They say management assumes all the risk, but I can’t remember a single instance of a CEO, President, Vice President or any other senior management or staff being killed or injured in a railroad accident. Two guys who were not assuming any of the risk and were not contributing to profits were killed a few days ago in a collision in California, involving failed procedures and apparently a failed signal system. No executives were harmed in this collision, but the damage to engines and cars was a substantial amount, perhaps injuring the stockholders.

The railroad industry claims that half of railroad workers work less than 40 hours a week. That is blatantly untrue. Occupations that work a defined shift, train dispatchers, locomotive and car maintenance workers, track and signal maintenance workers, have a 40 hour workweek. Train and engine crews may sometimes work less than 40 hours a week, but in making that statement, the industry is not counting the time they sit around in the away from home terminal waiting for their return trip, many hours or even many days.

Good ol’ Amtrak Joe, friend of Labor, appointed a PEB that issued a solution almost entirely in favor of railroad management.

The Federal Government Is Trying to Stop Railroad Workers From Striking

By Joe Burns - Jacobin, September 9, 2022

Railroad workers bargaining for better pay and working conditions are at an impasse with their employers, causing the federal government to intervene to ward off a disruptive strike. But railworkers should be allowed to strike if and when they want to.

For months, 140,000 union railroad workers have been stuck at an impasse with their employers, who are united under the banner of the Association of American Railroads. The terms of the dispute should be familiar to most workers: attendance policy, staffing, and wage increases. Despite record profits, rail employers have cut staffing, placing enormous burdens on workers that aren’t reflected in their pay.

By all accounts, railworkers are in a militant mood. An attendance policy prompted rail unions to attempt to strike earlier this year. In July, 99 percent of union members who cast ballots voted to authorize another strike, prompting President Joe Biden to intervene in August.

In order to avert a strike, Biden appointed a presidential emergency board (PEB) to reach a compromise and settle the dispute. The PEB put some money into wages but predictably did little on the workers’ core workplace concerns. The rail unions are unenthusiastic about the PEB ruling, and the largest groups have not been willing to put the recommendations out for membership ratification. While bargaining continues, the unions will be eligible to strike on September 16, which is thirty days following the PEB recommendation.

That eligibility requirement is a term of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), passed in 1926, which regulates bargaining in the rail and airline industries. Even though the RLA protects the right to strike in words, politicians in both parties have used the legislation to strip railroad workers of that right in practice, often ramming settlements down the throats of striking workers.

Over the years, Congress has intervened several times to delay strikes and sometimes even impose terms on railroad workers. President Harry Truman threatened to have the Army run the railroads in 1950 during the Korean War. In the 1960s, President Johnson imposed a longer no-strike period on rail workers. President Barack Obama delayed a threatened strike in 2011.

Just hours into the last nationwide major rail strike in 1991, Congress passed legislation imposing the very contract workers rejected. The legislation required further bargaining but held that if no agreement was reached the terms of the PEB would be implemented, even though the unions had already rejected those terms.

Republicans and nearly all Democrats lined up to take away railworkers’ right to strike in 1991 — the final vote was 400 to 5. This controversy created widespread disaffection with the Democratic Party, even spurring the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes to endorse Labor Party Advocates, which was the last serious attempt to create a labor party in the US.

Statement in Support of U.S. Railroad Workers on the Precipice of Their Historic Strike

By Jim Abernathy - Labor Network for Sustainability, September 2022

Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) stands firmly in solidarity with railroad workers in this historic moment. Our railways are the veins of our nation, and these workers ensure our healthy circulation, getting our people and our goods wherever they are needed. Every person in this country fundamentally relies on the hard work and immense expertise of rail workers.

They worked on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the country alive, without a contract, and they have been thanked by private railroad corporations with sweeping layoffs, a refusal to pay just wages and benefits, and utterly inhumane working conditions. Let us not mince words - being forced to work alone, in dangerous conditions, sometimes for up to 80 hours a week is fundamentally inhumane. These workers, too long pitted against one another by the bosses, by CEOs who seek to divide and conquer the working class of the nation, now stand united as one against this unacceptable status quo.

Rail transportation and rail labor are also vital to the health of our entire planet. They are a crucial piece of solving the climate crisis, and they must be respected as a core part of the solution to many of our systemic problems. Respect for rail transportation and rail workers means expanding the workforce so that workers can have decent schedules, ensuring robust compensation, and ensuring their safety - putting our railroads front and center in the fight for good union jobs and a livable planet.

The bosses will not act unless they are forced to by a unified working class. Our railroad workers, united, spurred on by their own righteous history of labor militancy, are prepared now to use their collective power. LNS stands ready to support our brothers and sisters on the railroad and their fight for justice on the job and for all our communities.

Read the text (PDF).

Rail Workers Reject Contract Recommendations, Say They're Ready to Strike

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, September 1, 2022

Railroad unions continue their slow creep along the path to a settlement—or strike—in contract negotiations covering 115,000 workers. On August 16, the Presidential Emergency Board convened by President Biden issued its recommendations for a settlement. Many rail workers say they fall short and are prepared to strike to win more.

The PEB recommended 22 percent raises over the course of the five-year contract (dating back to 2020), which would be the highest wage increases rail unions have seen in decades. But they are offset by increases in health care costs—and come in the midst of high inflation.

The PEB also refused to touch almost any of the unions’ demands on work rules and conditions, either denying them outright or suggesting that the unions return to the slow negotiation and arbitration process they have already languished in since November 2019. Unions have been demanding a sick leave policy—rail workers have no sick days—and the PEB refused them. The PEB also refused to take a position on the strict attendance policies have infuriated many rail workers.

“By not addressing these issues and this generalized discontent among the workforce, the PEB has acted irresponsibly, their recommendations doing little to nothing to stem the tide of discontent nor address the ongoing mass exodus of workers from the industry,” said Jason Doering, general secretary of the cross-union solidarity caucus Railroad Workers United.

Heat Waves are Literally Killing UPS Workers

By Maximillian Alvarez - The Real News, August 31, 2022

Additional links

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemu​si​carchive​.org): Jules Taylor, ​“Working People Theme Song”

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