CHICAGO — “There used to be five crew members on every freight train, three on the engine and two on the caboose at the rear,” Ron Kaminkow, an engineer on Amtrak and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Reno, Nevada, told 65 people at a Sept. 19 conference here on “Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment.”
“Some 20 years ago the carriers cut the crews down to two on a train and eliminated the caboose, endangering rail workers and the community,” Kaminkow said. “Now they’re trying to cut the ‘crew’ down to one.”
Rail workers overwhelmingly voted down demands by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for the one-man crew last year, he said.
Kaminkow is general secretary of Railroad Workers United, which sponsored the conference. The gathering was endorsed by 17 other groups and unions, including Frack Free Illinois, Rising Tide, the Southeast Environmental Taskforce and the Socialist Workers Party. Rail workers, other unionists and members of environmental and community groups attended the meeting at the United Electrical Workers hall.
The conference was the third organized by Railroad Workers United on rail safety since the 2013 derailment and explosion of a 72-car train hauling crude oil killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Tom Harding, the engineer, was the only crew member on the train under a special deal the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway made with the Canadian government. Harding and dispatcher Richard Labrie, both members of the United Steelworkers union, have been smeared in the press and face frame-up charges in the disaster that could put them behind bars for life.
Panelists described how rail workers are “on call” 24 hours a day, never knowing when they’ll have to go out. They’re subject to 12-hour workdays, inadequate rest and mind-numbing fatigue, driving trains of 100 cars or more weighing over 18,000 tons on tracks that are poorly maintained and inspected less often.
Thomas Walsh, attorney for Harding, attended the conference from Canada and spoke. “The bottom line for the rail carriers is profits, not safety,” Walsh said. Because he was a one-man crew, Harding was directed to park his train on a hill above Lac-Mégantic before going to sleep after working 12 hours. A fire broke out on the engine and firemen shut it down, inadvertently allowing the air brakes to bleed out.
“You’ve all heard here about the conditions these workers face, this was a disaster waiting to happen,” Walsh said. “The one-person crew definitely played a role in what happened in Lac-Mégantic.”
Railroad bosses are eliminating workers in all the crafts to boost profits. “Van drivers used to be railroad employees, members of the railroad clerks union,” Phil Dedera, an organizer of UE Local 1177, whose members drive railroad crews to and from the trains, told the Militant. “The rail companies cut them out and subcontracted the work. Pay was slashed and conditions got much worse. Recently we signed contracts for 600 van drivers in California and 200 in Chicago and northwest Indiana.”
Workshops addressed how rail workers and environmental activists could work together to learn more about the movement of trains carrying volatile oil, build coalitions, educate others on the danger the trains pose and organize protest actions. Chicago is the largest rail center in the U.S.
The conference concluded with participants gathering in smaller groups to discuss how they could build alliances between rail workers, other unionists and community groups for action on rail safety.
Twenty participants joined a discussion on how to publicize the defense campaign for Harding and Labrie and build an Oct. 11 demonstration in Lac-Mégantic demanding the Canadian government bar the Central Maine and Quebec Railway from hauling hazardous waste in the area unless it makes its tracks safer.
Some decided to work together to put together a solidarity action in Chicago Oct. 11.
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