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Mike Elliot

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.

Apocalypse on Trial

By Stephyn Quirke - Street Roots News, January 21, 2016

Video: Delta5 Defendents and supporters sing a version of I've Been Working on the Railroad by Railroad Workers United organizer and IWW member, J.P. Wright in honor of the links of solidarity they forged with railroad workers during their struggle.

On Jan. 15, Snohomish County Judge Anthony E. Howard handed down sentences to five people who say our political system is rigged to destroy the planet.

The trial was the latest in a series of protests against the increasing volumes of fossil fuels traveling through the Pacific Northwest, bound for Asian markets, despite the considerable damage to regional eco-systems already resulting from climate change, including ocean acidification, loss of snowpack in the Cascades, rising stream temperatures and summer deadzones along the coast.

In September 2014, Abby Brockway, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Mike LaPointe and Liz Spoerri locked themselves to a 20-foot tripod at the BNSF railroad’s Delta yard in downtown Seattle. Dubbed the Delta 5, their protest was designed to draw attention to the danger of crude oil on rail lines in the Pacific Northwest, and to their contribution to irreversible climate change.

In a historic and highly anticipated trial that lasted four days, the Delta 5 were allowed to argue that their action was the lesser of two evils when compared to the status quo. In court shorthand, it’s called the necessity defense. Specifically, the Delta 5 presented evidence and legal arguments showing that their occupation of BNSF property was necessary to protect the public’s safety, calling numerous expert witnesses who testified to the public health risks of oil trains, both in their immediate risks to neighborhoods and to the damages climate change is bringing to Washington state. They included Richard Gammon, professor of chemistry and oceanography at the University of Washington, and Fred Milar, a hazardous-materials expert and former consultant to the railroad industry.

In another groundbreaking lawsuit concluded in November, King County Superior Judge Hollis Hill ruled that the state of Washington had a constitutional duty to uphold the public trust in natural resources and that this created a binding obligation for the state to protect the atmosphere for future generations. In an unusually dire ruling, Hill said, “Survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming … before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”

One of the elders in that room was Abby Brockway. Reflecting on the trial, she recalled, “Everybody wants to kick the can down the road. … They said, ‘Well, the Legislature’s supposed to do it,’ and they’re saying ‘No, ecology’s supposed to do it,’ so nobody wants to try.”

Andrea Rodgers, who represented eight youth plaintiffs in the November climate lawsuit, who in turn brought the lawsuit on behalf of future generations, explained: “What Judge Hill said in our case is really important for the world to know: that the climate crisis is real, it’s happening now, and the government in Washington state is not doing anything to address it. And they need to step up and protect the fundamental rights of these people. … People are starting to speak out and defend their own rights in a variety of ways, and hopefully the judges of the justice system will catch up with that.”

Eco Wobbles: the Lesser Known Story about the Delta 5 Case

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 22, 2016

By now, dear readers, you may have heard about the victory of the Delta 5, but in case you hadn't, here's a short review: In September 2014 five activists, Patrick Mazza, Mike LaPoint, Abby Brockway, Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minchew, entered the BNSF Delta railyard in Everett, Washington, and blocked an oil train with a tripod of steel rods to which they locked themselves. Motivated by frustration about the climate, workers safety and public health from the recklessness of the oil and railroad industries, they stayed on the tracks for eight hours before BNSF police arrested and charged them with trespassing and obstructing a train.

At their trial, during the first half of January 2016, they introduced the "necessity defense." They argued that their actions were not a crime because they were necessary to prevent a much greater harm, climate disruption and the immediate threat of oil train derailments, spills, and explosions.

To establish the necessity of their action the defense brought in expert witnesses to testify about the urgency of climate disruption, the danger from oil trains, railroad industry’s disregard for worker safety and the fact that pollution from trains is already killing people. Their testimony went largely unchallenged by the prosecution. Judge Anthony E Howard, who presided over the case, even expressed some sympathy for the activists, but at the end of the trial ruled that the jury would have to disregard these arguments because the defense had not sufficiently demonstrated that there was no other legal alternative to achieve the same ends. "Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change," Howard said from the bench. But, he added: "I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal beliefs might be." With those very narrow set of instructions, the jury returned with their verdict -- finding the Delta 5 guilty of trespassing, but not guilty of obstructing a train. The obstructing a train charge carried a potentially much more serious penalty.

After the trial was over and the Delta 5 and jury were released three of the six jurors came back into the courthouse, hugged the defendants, and sat with them and their supporters while they were sentenced by the judge.

While the ruling can still be appealed by BNSF, for now climate justice activists are celebrating the ruling as a partial victory, though not a resounding victory, because Judge Howard ruled out the possibility of using the "Neccessity Defense".

What's less talked about, however, is that this case represents another small victory, in this case (no pun intended) a victory for Green Unionism. During the blockade, Abby Brockway (shown in the accompanying image) sat atop a tripod which bore a sign which read: "Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors - #Greens4Rails" which was in reference to a concurrent rank and file BNSF railroad workers' struggle (aided in large part by the organizers of Railroad Workers United (RWU)) to beat-back a concessionary contract proposal (detailed on ecology.iww.org) which would have allowed for the reduction in train-crew size from two to one employee. This was directly relevant to the Delta 5's blockade, because the latter were concerned about stopping any future disasters like the crude-by-rail train derailment which killed 47 people and devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, in which an overworked and poorly trained Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer, Tom Harding, had been the single employee on the train in question.

The rank and file railroad workers' fight against concessions succeeded. The Delta 5's soldiarity with railroad workers (in addition to support from many other enviornmental activists) sent a clear message that these climate justice activists do not blame railroad workers for the careless profiteering of the fossil fuel corporations or the railroad bosses, and see the workers as potential allies. Indeed, partly as a result of such overtures, BNSF whistleblower and railroad worker, Mike Elliot, testified at the trial of the Delta 5 on behalf of the defendants, and though his testimony was ultimately not allowed by the judge to be used as evidence, it still offers a glimpse of the potential strength that both the labor and environmental movements can bring to each other.

There's still much to be worked out in the case of railroad workers and climate justice activists opposed to crude-by-rail, including matters of railroad workers' working conditions and just transition. And far too many railroad workers believe the lies their bosses tell them about environmentalists being responsible for the current downturn in railroad work (which is primarily due to the crash of the shale oil boom and the economic meltdown currently unfolding in China, both of which are typical busts in the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist market). Some initial groundwork took place during three conferences organized by RWU and others last year, called "Railroad Safety: Workers, Community & the Environment". On the heels of the Delta 5 victory, there's no better time to think about continuing that work. An Injury to One is an Injury to All!

Oil on the Tracks: Pacific Northwest Rises for Rail Safety

By Nartha Baskin - Truthout, November 6, 2014

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.

If there were ever any question about how the public feels about "moving time bombs," or oil trains carrying volatile crude through the state's coastal estuaries, aquifers, population centers and tribal lands, the answers began at the crack of dawn and ricocheted into the night. At a five-hour-plus hearing, the public weighed in on a draft report on oil train safety and spill response issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Raging Grannies, chained together in rocking chairs, started the day by blocking the entrance to Ecology offices. The Department of Ecology, said the Grannies, was closed for a workshop on "How to Say No to Oil." By evening, the stand-off was over, but the public hearing had just begun. Longshoreman, railroad workers, and first responders expressed concerns about safety, crew capacity, and training. Tribes spoke of threats to drinking water and fishing rights. Millennials and boomers demanded fossil fuels stay in the ground. Mayors and county commissioners, including some who had passed resolutions against any oil trains moving through their communities, demanded clean energy alternatives.

Oil train safety: A whole lot of worry among Washingtonians

By John Stang - CrossCut, October 31, 2014

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.

The subject was oil train traffic, and most of a roughly 750-person crowd Thursday night opposed the increasing transportation of crude oil by rail across Washington.

And if more oil trains do surface, the crowd at an Olympia hearing on draft oil spill prevention and response plan wanted dramatically stricter rules that what the state plan proposes. 

"We must stop these trains and the tankers they feed," said Nathaniel Jones, mayor pro tempore of Olympia. Vancouver small business owner Don Orange, representing the Main Street Business Alliance, said oil trains are "great for Big Oil. It stinks for us."

"We shouldn't be moving this stuff through our populated area," Orange said.

The draft state report says, "There has been an unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. The amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015."

Even that amount could increase with construction of proposed new rail facilities and the potential lifting of a federal ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the report says.