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Ron Kaminkow

A Railroad Worker Strike Could Shake the Economy’s Foundations

By Paul Prescod - Jacobin, August 2, 2022

Once a coveted job, conditions for railroad workers have badly deteriorated. But railroad workers are central to our economy — so central that a current impasse between railroad companies and associated unions has prompted Joe Biden to intervene.

Six months ago, the spouses of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation (BNSF) employees detailed the toll the job was taking on their families. A letter containing twenty-five of their stories portrays a climate where workers find it impossible to maintain a personal life.

Nichole Bischoff, who has taken the lead in organizing railroad worker spouses, said to a local news outlet, “So many parents wanna be at every trick-or-treating event, every school function, baseball game and they just can’t, and our kids learn to live with it.”

“My husband can’t even attend any of his appointments,” one anonymous spouse complained. “He has already gotten dropped from a couple [health care] providers for poor compliance.”

Now conditions for railroad workers are poised to take center stage nationally. On Friday, July 15, President Joe Biden intervened in a labor dispute that could have a dramatic impact on the nation’s economy. Contract negotiations between the major freight railroad companies and their associated unions, representing 115,000 railway workers, have reached an impasse. Utilizing the procedures of the Railway Labor Act, the president stepped in to form a presidential emergency board that will hold hearings and issue recommendations during a thirty-day “cooling-off” period.

But there are no guarantees that this mediation will produce a settlement, as railworkers have been pushed to the brink by decades of brutal corporate cost-cutting measures.

What If Rail Workers Struck? A Talk with RWU

U.S. Railroad Workers Inch Closer to a Possible National Strike

By Jeff Schuhrke - In These Times, July 25, 2022

After Biden appointed an emergency board to help resolve the labor dispute, rail workers warn: “We have the ability to stop the trains from moving.”

After waiting over two years to secure a new union contract, and still reeling from the impacts of Wall Street-ordered cost-cutting measures, 115,000 beleaguered workers who operate the nation’s freight railroads are inching closer towards a possible strike, which could come as soon as September. 

In an effort to drive down operating expenses and reward their wealthy shareholders, in recent years railroad companies have implemented ​“precision scheduled railroading,” or PSR — a version of just-in-time, lean production that centers on reducing the workforce and closing facilities. 

“For years, they cut and cut and cut. It didn’t matter which department or terminal, it was indiscriminate,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based locomotive engineer with Union Pacific.

Over the past six years, the major Class I railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have slashed their collective workforce by 29 percent (around 45,000 workers), leaving the industry woefully understaffed and putting extra strain on workers already accustomed to long, irregular hours. 

Lindsey said the severe staffing shortages have resulted in ​“constant chaos and crisis,” with workers being called at all hours, day and night, expected to take on assignments they were not initially scheduled for. 

Cost-cutting has also meant freight trains are running with more cars and more cargo than existing infrastructure is equipped to handle, or else misrouting rail cars just to get them moving. This cost-cutting, along with a labor shortage, have been major contributors to the supply-chain crisis. 

Meanwhile, the railroad companies remain highly profitable, with owners raking in $183 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010.

What’s Wrong with Single Employee Train Operations?

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 2021

At first glance, the casual observer from outside of the rail industry is prone to say that single employee train operation sounds dangerous. “What if the engineer has a heart attack?” is an often heard question. And while this question has merit, there are many other and far more complex and unanswered questions about just how single employee train operations could be accomplished safely and efficiently for the train crew, the railroad and the general public. How will the train make a back-up move? What happens when the train hits a vehicle or pedestrian? How will the train crew member deal with “bad-order” equipment in his/her train, or make pick-ups and set-outs en route? What about job briefings and calling signals, copying mandatory directives and reminders of slow orders? These are just some questions that we take up in this article.

Remote Control and “Utility Conductors”

In recent years, the Class I rail carriers have been biding their time, slowly but surely inserting language into recent contracts with both unions of the operating crafts that will facilitate their schemes to run over the road trains with a lone employee. They have made arrangements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) to allow the BLET represented crew member to make use remote controlled locomotives. With this scenario, the lone operator would strap on a belt pack, dismount from the locomotive, and run the locomotive by remote control operation (RCO) using radio control from the ground. And the carriers have also made deals with the United Transportation Union (UTU) to allow for “utility conductors”; i.e. a conductor who can “attach” to one or more over-the-road trains during the course of a single tour of duty. Between the two arrangements, the rail carriers apparently believe they can safely and efficiently operate road trains with just one employee aboard as opposed to the current standard of two. We disagree.

RWU Statement to Pipelines & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in Regard to Proposal to Ship LNG by Rail

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, August 6, 2019

Docket Management System
U.S. Department of Transportation
West Building, Ground Floor, Room W12–140, Routing Symbol M–30 1200
New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20590

August 6th, 2019

Comment Re: PHMSA–2019–0100, Draft Environmental Assessment for a Special Permit Request for Liquefied Natural Gas by Rail

To William S. Schoonover, Associate Administrator of Hazardous Materials Safety, and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:

Railroad Workers United (RWU) urges you to deny the special permit requested by Energy Transport Solutions, LLC to ship large quantities of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) using unit trains of DOT-113C120W tank cars. Rail shipments of LNG would pose dramatic health, safety, and environmental risks to railroad workers and com-munities across the United States. LNG train derailments could cause fires and ex-plosions, property damage, mass injuries and fatalities - impacts that are largely ignored in PHMSA’s cursory, 23-page analysis.

As an organization of working rank & file railroad workers from all crafts and all car-riers, Railroad Workers United is deeply concerned about the casual attitude to-wards shipping LNG by rail. Over the course of the last six years or so we have wit-nessed the danger inherent in shipping Bakken crude oil by rail with limited over-sight and regulation, a danger that continues to this day.

It is obvious that the proposal to ship LNG by rail likewise is inherently dangerous for train crews, trackside communities and the public at large if it is not moved in a safe manner. Most of the oil trains which have crashed over the last six years or so - re-sulting in spills, fires, and explosions – were in fact made up of DOT-113C120W tank cars, ones of the type that apparently are being proposed now for LNG trains. Therefore, before any LNG is moved in unit trains across the U.S., Railroad Workers United recommends the following regulation:

  • LNG shall not be moved by rail unless it is moved in tank cars that have been crash tested to withstand puncturing. Many of the rail cars currently in service are not capable of safely transporting LNG and should not be used in this capacity.
  • Electrically Controlled Pnuematic (ECP) braking should be employed on all unit trains of LNG as a means of possibly preventing a disaster, and/or mitigating the extent of the disaster in the event of a derailment/crash.
  • The longer and heavier the train, the greater the propensity for it to derail, and having derailed, the greater chance of disaster. We recommend all such dangerous trains be limited to no more than 50 cars.
  • All such trains must have a minimum of at least two persons in the cab of the locomotive to ensure safe move-ment and delivery of the product, and to mitigate against disaster throughout its routing, should there be a mishap.
  • Prior to departure from the originating terminal, all such trains must undergo a thorough and proper inspection by host railroad employees who are properly trained and certified to do the work.
  • Prior to movement on the mainline, such trains should have an advance “high-rail” escort service to ensure that the track ahead is clear and in proper condition for the safe passage of the train.
  • After a string of oil train derailments, fires and explosions, crude oil train speed was limited to 40 mph in urban areas. Unit trains of LNG should likewise be so restricted.

Only once these safety features at a minimum are adopted would RWU be comfortable in supporting the proposed shipment of LNG by rail.

Ron Kaminkow
General Secretary
Railroad Workers United

Download (PDF).

Backbone Campaign’s people-powered plan to electrify America’s railroads

By Sydney Parker - Real Change, May 3, 2017

In our fractured political climate, it’s hard to envision a cause that could unite a rural farmer with a big-city tech worker, a union laborer with a grassroots environmentalist, or a tribal leader with a government official, but Bill Moyer thinks he’s found just the cause: Solutionary Rail.

Solutionary Rail proposes that the public electrify America’s railroads, run them on renewable energy and transform railroad corridors into electricity superhighways transmitting wind and solar energy from remote rural areas to urban centers. If enacted, Moyer said the proposal would recenter the role of rail in U.S. transportation and provide the public with a new sustainable source of economic vitality.

In other words, with Solutionary Rail, everybody wins.  

“It provides almost a psychic relief from the burden of being defined by what we oppose,” said Moyer, who serves as executive director of the Washington state-based Backbone Campaign, a nonporift that creates “artful activism.” “This offers an opportunity to be for something great, to be in dialogue with communities that we may not have anything else otherwise in common about some shared interest.”

It all began with Mike Elliott, a rail labor leader affiliated with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. In 2013, Elliott challenged Moyer to devise a “green” concept for modernization of the northern corridor railroad. Elliott is best known in Washington state for blowing the whistle on safety violations by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. His call for change was echoed by hundreds of BNSF employees fed up with the status quo.

Railroad Workers and Our Allies Must Unite in Support of AMTRAK

By Ron Kaminkow - Teamsters for a Democratic Union, April 25, 2017

On March 16th, President Trump released a blueprint budget that proposes to slash funding for the Department of Transportation by $2.4 billion, including funding for all Amtrak “long distance” trains, along with funding for dozens of transit expansion projects nationwide. In recent months, Trump has voiced support for massive investment in the nation’s infra-structure. Yet ironically, his first proposed budget not only fails to deliver, it guts funding for existing infrastructure.

The blueprint budget proposes the elimination of most Amtrak routes across the country. If we are to save the national passenger rail system, railroad workers and their unions must unite with passenger advocacy groups, environmental organizations, and communities across the country. The vast majority of Americans want more - not less - passenger trains. In this fight, just like in others, railroad workers have lots of potential allies.

All railroaders – freight, as well as transit and passenger – should be alarmed and concerned by this proposal. Should Amtrak be defunded and dismembered, it is near certain that nothing would replace it. Privately run passenger trains fail to turn a profit – the reason that the rail carriers abandoned such service in the 1960's. And it is highly unlikely that private vendors – even if there were any – who wished to enter such a market would even be allowed by most – if not all – carriers access to their railroads. Amtrak is barely tolerated by the host railroads as it is, and then only because the act which created the entity in 1970 mandates that it be entitled to operate passenger trains on the nation’s railroads.

Thankfully, the President’s blueprint budget is not the last word on the question. We have the potential to save Amtrak – and transit funding too – over the course of the coming weeks and months, as Congress fashions what will be ultimately be the final budget. We have been down this road before of course, when George Bush was President. We will need to mobilize now like we did then. Because if Amtrak is defunded, thousands of fellow rails will lose their jobs, and as a result, we will all potentially suffer as the income for Railroad Retirement is dramatically diminished.

Ironically, as it turns out, Amtrak is one of the most efficient passenger railroads in the world, covering 94% of its operating costs at the fare box! Adjusted revenue of $2.15 billion was the most ever for a fiscal year (2016). Amtrak set an all-time ridership record despite record low gasoline prices inducing travelers to drive rather than seek public transportation. Demand for trains is out there! Considering that all forms of transportation – including airline, inland waterway, as well as automobile, bus and anything else that goes down the highway – are heavily subsidized by the states and federal government, far more than Amtrak, we are getting a great deal with the limited subsidy that Amtrak receives to keep the trains running. And in some cases – especially in rural areas – the train is the only form of public transportation available!

And trains are the safest form of transportation known to humanity. Railroad transport utilizes less land and space to transport an equivalent number of passengers in any other mode. And trains emit less pollutants than other forms, and can make use of alternative and renewable energy. As the nation’s highways and airports become ever more congested, we should be expanding passenger train options, not reducing them! As fossil fuel shipments decline, and demand for public transportation continues to grow, passenger trains could fill the void and excess track capacity in certain lanes. And in select mid-range corridors of 400 miles or less; e.g. Chicago to St. Louis, Chicago to Twin Cities; Bay Area to L.A., Houston to Dallas; Jacksonville to Miami; L.A. to Las Vegas, there is great potential to develop and expand multi-train departures on faster and more reliable schedules.

But to save Amtrak and expand the use of passenger rail – thereby increasing union rail employment, and ensuring the future of Railroad Retirement – will take a gallant effort. Rail unions cannot do this themselves, passenger advocacy groups cannot, neither can environmental organizations nor municipalities, all of whom are supporters of passenger rail. Therefore, we need a “Grand Alliance” of all of these forces to win the day. While all of us may have a specific agenda and focus, we have far more in common with one another than we have differences, there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is high time that our labor unions reach out, network, and build the necessary alliances with these forces, not just for a one-time lobbying effort for a specific narrow goal, as important as it may be. Rather, we need to build a strategic long-term alliance – despite our differences - with these forces, where we come to see one another as natural coalition partners for the long run.

Governments around the world are investing heavily in passenger rail. They understand that it is the safest, most convenient, environmentally sensitive, and often fastest way to get around. We can do it here too. But it will take the political will power and the formation of a lasting progressive coalition to bring it about. What better time than now to get started!

Railroaders’ Group Supports Rule to Ban Single Employee Train Operations

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 15, 2016

Railroad Workers United (RWU) – a coalition of railroad workers drawn from all crafts across North America – applauds the efforts by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to restrict the use of single employee train operations, and demand a two-person crew as a minimum staffing requirement on trains.

RWU has taken an unequivocal stand against single employee operations since our founding convention in 2008. In 2010, the RWU Steering Committee reiterated our position in a formal resolution in opposition to single mployee train crews (see attached). And in 2012, we initiated a campaign of activities designed to build opposition to the carriers’ plans for universal single employee train operations.

“Our efforts - together with those of the unions of the rail operating crafts in the last few years - have brought this issue before the general public and the government”, states locomotive engineer and RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow. “The proposed rule by the FRA released on Monday is a major step forward in the fight against the dangerous and reckless proposal by the nation’s rail carriers to run trains with a lone employee. While the FRA Proposed Rule is far from perfect, providing loopholes and allowing for exemptions in too many instances, it is certainly a major stride in the right direction.”

RWU - along with the rail unions and various citizens groups - have also been pushing on the legislative front at both the state and federal levels for a law that would outlaw single employee train crew operations. A number of states - most recently California - have outlawed single employee train operations, while a dozen or so more have bills pending. At the federal level, HR #1763 if adopted, would make the minimum train crew size of two employees - a certified engineer and a certified conductor - the law of the land. Opinion polls that have been conducted on the question find that more than 80% of the U.S. population favor such a law.

RWU will prepare a written statement in the coming weeks to submit to the FRA in the hope of improving the Proposed Rule. In addition, the organization plans to keep up its educational work and continue to mobilize railroad workers, citizens groups and environmental organizations to get behind efforts to outlaw single crew operations of trains.

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.

Railroad Workers United calls Chicago rail safety conference

By Maggie Trowe - The Militant, September 14, 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.

Railroad Workers United will sponsor a one-day conference titled “Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment” Sept. 19 in Chicago. The RWU is organizing the event with labor and environmental groups, including United Steelworkers Local 1527, Frack Free Illinois and the Southeast Environmental Task Force. It is a follow-up to earlier conferences in Richmond, California, and Olympia, Washington.

“The 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster put a spotlight on how rail bosses put profits ahead of safety and made these conferences necessary and possible,” Mark Burrows, a steering committee member of Railroad Workers United and delegate in SMART TD Local 1433 union, told the Militant in a phone interview Sept. 1.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned runaway 72-car Montreal, Main and Atlantic train carrying volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, destroying the downtown area and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the soil and lake there. The catastrophe commanded worldwide attention and spurred concern about the dangers posed by the massive increase of North American oil production and its transport by train through the centers of cities and towns across the continent.

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