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Vol. 79/No. 10      March 23, 2015

Rail workers initiate forums
to discuss fight for safety


OAKLAND, Calif. — “Railroads are on people’s radar” for the first time in decades, Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, an engineer on Amtrak in Reno, Nevada, and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, told the Militant March 5. Recent oil train derailments, explosions and fires have “galvanized the general public to the point that many people want to stop oil transportation by rail altogether.”

“Railroaders may not agree but everyone can agree that oil trains, and any trains, need to be moved safely and securely,” Kaminkow said.

Rail workers face growing attacks, including demands that they operate trains with only the engineer on board.

In the summer of 2014, BNSF Railway “overplayed its hand,” Kaminkow said, when it demanded that SMART union members agree to the single-person “crew.” As word of the contract proposal got out, workers across the system organized a successful drive to defeat it.

Out of these experiences, Kaminkow explained, Railroad Workers United decided to organize two conferences on “The Future of Railroads: Safety, Workers, Community and the Environment.” Endorsed by some 40 community, environmental and labor organizations, they will take place March 14 in Richmond and March 21 in Olympia, Washington.

“The BNSF thought it would be easy to sell the one-man crew to workers,” he said, because they had pushed through previous contract concessions and because the SMART-Transportation Division leadership tried to sell the deal.

SMART — the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — represents railroad conductors, brakemen, switchmen and yardmasters.

BNSF workers mobilized and defeated the crew proposal by a 3,056 to 623 vote. They held public protests, debated officials at union meetings and won support from families, other unionists and people who live near the tracks.

Railroad Workers United, with members in many of the rail unions across North America, issued weekly updates, on aspects of the contract and protests against it. They distributed newsletters, email and Facebook announcements and stickers urging a “no” vote.

“The RWU’s campaign was quite visible in BNSF terminals from big cities like Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, to small towns like Creston, Iowa,” Kaminkow said. “This increased RWU’s membership and prestige.”

Railroad Workers United is organizing the two West Coast conferences jointly with Backbone Campaign, a group supporting numerous environmental issues. The Richmond conference will kick off with a workshop focusing on worker fatigue, single-worker crews, and long and heavier trains. It will be followed by workshops on related environmental and other questions.

Railroad Workers United is discussing holding similar conferences in Iowa, Chicago, and Albany, New York, Kaminkow said.
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