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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 7, 2013, 1:15 pm

Chicago Rail Workers Strike, Alleging Shady Layoffs and Poor Safety Conditions

BY Kari Lydersen

Brian Allen and Dwayne Barr were laid off from a Chicago rail provider; the IWW alleges the layoffs were retaliation for union organizing.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Eric Vazquez started working for Mobile Rail Solutions, a family-owned company that services locomotives in Chicago-area rail yards, a month and a half ago. He quickly came to feel the job was hazardous. In the course of his workday, he said, he was supposed to climb a tower more than 10 feet high to release thousands of pounds of sand into his truck, without a safety harness or a respirator to protect his lungs.

Nor, he says, was he provided sturdy gloves or other protective gear for dealing with human waste while cleaning out septic systems. “They didn’t give us hepatitis or tetanus shots,” he said. “I have a 1-month-old. I definitely don’t want to bring that home to my little man.”

So Vazquez filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in July. Meanwhile OSHA separately opened investigations in mid-July into three Chicago-area Mobile Rail facilities—in Northlake, Bedford Park and Aurora. The agency has six months to complete the investigations, U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Rhonda Burke told Working In These Times, but said she could not comment further on ongoing investigations.

Workers report that after the OSHA investigations began, they were provided protective gear and their bosses seemed more concerned about safety. (Company officials did not respond to a call and email for comment.)

But then on July 26, Vazquez lost his job. Before the end of the month, two more workers lost their jobs. They were told that their positions as “helpers” who do a variety of tasks were no longer needed and that they would have to get commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) if they wanted to remain employed. But they believe the layoffs were retaliation for complaining about safety practices and for organizing a union. On August 14, Mobile Rail workers will vote on whether to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), giving the progressive and storied union official collective bargaining power with the company.

Burke said that if the workers feel they were retaliated against for complaining about safety issues or other protected activity, they can file claims under OSHA’s whistleblower protection policies. If OSHA investigates and finds the company guilty, Mobile Rail can be required to rehire the workers and/or pay them damages.

But their fellow workers aren’t waiting around for an OSHA ruling.

After the second and third workers lost their jobs, Mobile Rail workers at various sites went on strike in solidarity on July 31, forming a picket line with IWW members and supporters outside the Union Pacific rail yard at 14th Street and Western Avenue in Chicago. They say they informed company owners of the planned strike ahead of time and requested a meeting. But the strike is in its seventh day, and no one from the company has met with them, they say.

In a press statement today, IWW said that union workers for other companies in the rail yard are now refusing to cross the picket lines:

For a week, workers across different labor unions have been talking about the Strike and today several workers simply turned around and went home. Because Mobile Rail operates out of the Global 1 rail yard, workers are picketing the main entrance. It now looks like our friends in the yard are tired of seeing Mobile Rail Management ignore their own workers any longer.

Within Mobile Rail, workers gathered on a picket line on August 1 said that nearly all of the approximately 27 employees who would be eligible for the bargaining unit support the union. “This is an epidemic of firings—three in just three days,” says Ahern Owen, 24, an experienced environmental and labor activist who has worked for Mobile Rail for more than two years. He says he personally refuses to work on the towers where the workers load the sand that is later put into locomotives to be sprayed on the tracks for traction.

“You park your truck underneath the sand tower and then you have to climb a ladder at an angle and stand on it out in the open,” Owen explained. “You could easily fall 13 feet. And sand is blowing in your face—that can cause silicosis. They were just giving us paper masks, not respirators.”

There is a long history of railroad companies retaliating against workers for getting hurt and for filing complaints about safety issues, as In These Times reported earlier this year. Labor leaders and lawyers say that the rail companies want to dissuade workers from reporting injuries, because they want to avoid government scrutiny, paying compensation and being forced to invest in improvements.

Mobile Rail workers believe that is exactly what is happening to them.

Another of the three laid off workers, Brian Allen, was let go less than a week after being injured. He thinks he was punished both for getting injured in the first place and for filling out the required federal report about the injury. He says that in the shop where he worked, he was operating a piece of equipment that he was not trained on and that was also faulty. It punctured his thumb, requiring a doctor’s visit and a tetanus shot that made him feel sick. He missed the next day of work because he felt ill and because he had a follow-up medical appointment, he said. A few days later, he was told he was being laid off because the company no longer needed helpers.

But workers said want ads seeking helpers showed up on Craigslist immediately after they were laid off (though the ads requested applicants have commercial driver’s licenses.) Allen said that following his injury, owner/manager Tim Murphy repeatedly asked him whether he had called OSHA; Allen said he had not. After the union organizing effort started, Allen said Murphy also asked him about it and who was involved.

“I said I didn’t know who was involved, but that personally I supported it,” says Allen, 33, who had started work with Mobile Rail in early May. He is sure his layoff was related to his support for the union: “A toddler could look at that and see what was really going on here,” he says.

Vazquez said he was told he could keep his job if he obtained a commercial license, but he didn’t have the $1,500 or so for the training course. And, like Allen, he doesn’t believe that was really the issue. “I was retaliated against because I went to OSHA,” he says.

Dwayne Barr, 28, was also told he was laid off because Mobile Rail’s contract with Union Pacific no longer called for helpers without commercial licenses, but he didn’t buy it. He also supports the union effort, and figured the company knew it. 

All three workers were within or approaching the end of their 90-day probationary period, after which point it would be harder to lay them off. They figure the owners didn’t want them to be able to vote in the union election. Vazquez said it is clear that the owners knew he was an ardent supporter of the unionizing effort, adding that one of them had commented on a photo of him online wearing an IWW T-shirt.

 “If the union was brought on, the safety violations would be solved,” says Vazquez, 25. “We need that power to give ultimatums to protect ourselves.”

Owen says the workers first decided they wanted to unionize and then debated which union to choose. They settled on IWW, he says, because it is more independent and worker-driven than larger unions.

“If you don’t stand up for yourself you are fired,” he says. “There’s no waiting around for the savior, waiting to be resurrected three days later. You have to do the fighting yourself.”

“Even if we don’t get our jobs back,” adds Allen, “We’ll make it better for the next people.”

The union has launched a strike fund, which supporters can donate to online at Indiegogo. Strikers will be picketing at Union Pacific’s Global 1 location in Chicago on Saturday, August 10, from 3 to 6 p.m.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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