The grim consequences of the rail bosses' drive to increase productivity and profits through "cost cutting" measures have been driven home with deadly force this month. Eighteen people have been killed in rail accidents in 21 days.
In each of these cases the rail bosses, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the government rushed to blame the workers, singing in unison "Operator Error!"
In two cases safety board investigators implied the engineers ran past stop signals. The FBI was called in on two cases to investigate possible tampering with the braking system on the trains. While the bosses later had to back off this charge, they succeeded in smearing the workers in the initial sensationalized press reports.
But the cause of these deadly accidents lies not with errors by workers, signal failures, or faulty safety equipment. These are the inevitable results of the drive by the rail bosses, with the aid of the government, to increase profits. In the last decade trains crews have been cut from an average of five to three, and sometimes two. Many rail workers on commuter lines work in split shifts, often resulting in a 12- to 14- hour workday. Under contract concessions that began in the late 1980s, new hires must accept "force promotions" to conductors within their first six months and are often forced to become engineers within the first year.
In order to be more "competitive," larger railroads are streamlining their operations by abandoning unprofitable lines. The increase in the volume of freight on remaining lines steps up the pressure on workers. The rail bosses have trumpeted technological innovations that they claim increase productivity and safety. After achieving the crew cuts the rail barons have often cut back on some of the high technology devices or not kept them in working order. In the collision of the Maryland commuter train, a previous rail company had removed automatic train control devices from the track because they were too "expensive" to maintain.
The human toll of the first 21 days of February is the blood payment for these "cost savings" wrenched from rail workers in the form of concession contracts, longer working hours, and unsafe working conditions.
Transportation Secretary Federico Peń a announced a few new rules and ordered a review and a safety plan be submitted within 45 days. This leaves the bosses free to continue with short crews and long hours. These "reviews" are always designed to let the initial storm of protest blow over and hope that people will forget the damage done.
Rail workers have the most reason to lead to demand:
By leading a fight to protect the lives of rail workers, community residents, and passengers, and to protect the environment, rail workers can win wide support in their battle against the bosses who put a price tag on people's lives.
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