On RailCon15: the Future of Railroads

By Tom Wetzel

More than 120 people attended the Future of Railroads Conference (RailCon15) in Richmond, California, March 14th, organized by Railroad Workers United, with support from local environmental groups and others.

Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United talked about the history of railway worker attempts to build industry wide solidarity and unity, going back to the American Railway Union of Gene Debs in the 1890s. These efforts were stymied by the persistence of the conservative craft unions. The railroads are able to play one craft union off against the other to the detriment of rail workers. Railroad Workers United is an effort to build solidarity and unity of the workers across occupations and unions.

At present operating crews belong to two remaining unions, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and United Transportation Union (mostly derived from the former Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen). BLE is now affiliated to the Teamsters union and UTU recently merged with the Sheet Metal Workers union to form SMART.

When the UTU recently signed a concessionary agreement with Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) in one of its regions, this would have allowed BNSF (owned by Warren Buffett’s venture capital firm, Berkshire Hathaway) to go to one-person crews. This would have iced out the engineers union, stabbing them in the back. The RWU organized a “Vote No” campaign among conductors, brakepersons and other UTU members which soundly defeated this destructive proposal by seven to one.

The move from four or five person crews in the 1980s to the two-person crew of today was also brought about by the same type of railroad management strategy of getting one union to sell out the other.

One major focus at the conference was on the railroad industry push for converting to one-person crews for over-the-road freight trains. This would mean the engineer would be all by himself on a mile-long train hauling perhaps 17,000 tons.

A number of railroad workers explained exactly how destructive this would be. Collisions with vehicles at crossings occur all the time. Last year 900 people in the USA died in grade crossing accidents. At present the second person on the train can deal with the situation on the ground and summon emergency responders while the engineer deals with the train and reporting to the dispatcher, which is the first requirement under their rules. Without the second crew person, it would be harder to respond to the emergency.

With engineers often on-call 24/7, long hours and unstable shifts lead to problems of fatigue which make for a more dangerous situation.  Having a second person in the engine helps to keep the engineer awake and alert.

Railroads also have very complicated rule books. As a former engineer explained, it’s all designed so that the railroads can say “It’s your fault” if an accident happens. This in turn helps to ramp up the stress that workers are under.

All of this reflects the fact that the railroads are not designed to be run in a safe way, but to make profits for the owners.

Another issue discussed was the problem of excessive train length. As a former rail worker explained, this leads to huge forces on the couplers that link the cars, which makes trains more vulnerable. Shorter trains would be safer…but require more crews. Companies oppose this because it would raise their labor costs.

There was also a contingent of oil refinery workers involved in the current oil refinery strike. A worker from the former ARCO refinery in Los Angeles talked about how safety is the most important issue for refinery workers. The unionized refinery workers currently have a rule where they can shut down a maintenance process if they believe it is not safe. But the oil companies would prefer workers to not have the right to stop the job. He discussed the recent explosion in Torrance and pointed out that, despite Exxon’s re-assurances, in fact the explosion dumped highly toxic chemicals over the surrounding neighborhoods.

To make a point about this, the refinery workers had a load of horseshit dumped in front of the door of the local Exxon headquarters.

The Empire Logistics study group from San Francisco discussed the way that workers are linked around the world through the movement of goods along the supply chains. To get people thinking about this, each table in the conference was asked to look at how, if they were oil refinery workers, they might look at the supply chain to their refinery to gain solidarity. I was sitting at a table with refinery workers. At the refineries in Los Angeles, the oil typically arrives through pipelines from tankers that unload at the harbor. Gasoline is typically distributed by trucks, but other refined products are shipped by rail. An engineer who is a member of RWU explained how the Railway Labor Act does not ban “hot cargo” — the act of workers refusing to handle struck goods. So he was explaining how refinery workers could picket the train crew to not pick up or deliver cars to the refinery. This would mean positioning the pickets at the point where the private spur of the refinery meets the railway line.

A large portion of the conference was devoted to speakers from environmental groups and a discussion of issues like a “just transition” away from fossil fuels in a way that would take account of the needs of workers, and disadvantaged communities. At my table A member of the IWW talked about worker control as something to fight for. A retired refinery worker responded by saying that he was always told by management “You have no right to have a say over how we run things.” He expressed the view that a just transition is not likely without seizing the assets of the industry…a switch to socialism.

Andres Soto from Communities for a Better Environment in Contra Costa County (location of numerous oil refineries) gave a good explanation of how the state bureaucracy, in the form of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, acts to simply provide cover for the toxic pollution of the petroleum industry. The courts also play a role. Thus the air quality district did not give public notice of a new railroad oil terminal and the enviro groups sued when they found out. But the judge tossed out their suit because state law says there is only a 180 day statute of limitations. If you don’t uncover hidden machinations within that time, you’re out of luck in the legal framework.

After the speaker from CBE a man from United Native Americans (a member of the Lakota tribe) gave a talk in which he talked a little bit about the basis for an indigenous and union alliance, from an indigenous person’s viewpoint.

Since I’ve been an advocate for railroad mainline electrification, I was glad to see a discussion of this proposal, and its environmental and economic advantages. The basic idea is that electricity can be generated without fossil fuels, using renewables. Even as it is today, a ton of freight hauled by rail uses less energy than a ton of freight hauled the same distance by truck. If the railway mainlines were electrified…as they are in Europe, Russia, China…a ton of freight shipped by rail would use only five percent of the energy it takes to move freight on diesel trucks. If electricity is generated through renewables, this would mean a big drop in the carbon footprint of freight transport.

The particular vision proposed would have grade separated high-speed electrified railway mainlines, making them safer, more efficient and less polluting.

If this kind of electrified, high speed, low-carbon railway arrangement were done in the context of a socialized and worker-managed railway, we can see what it could do. But I’m skeptical of this happening any time soon in capitalist USA.

RailCon15 was a step towards bringing different groups of workers and environmentalists together to encourage future solidarity activities.

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