When Norfolk Southern first proposed to buy Cincinnati’s publicly-owned 336-mile stretch of railroad for nearly one billion dollars in July 2021, it probably seemed like an easy and lucrative deal for both the corporation and city officials — a deal that got even sweeter as the price was eventually upped to $1.6 billion.
Under the offer, the company would gain total control of a crucial link in the rail network stretching between Chicago and Atlanta. And the city would get a big chunk of cash for infrastructure and other spending.
But as Cincinnati residents prepare to vote on a Nov. 7 referendum necessary to complete the deal, as required by the state constitution, it’s becoming clear that the railroad behemoth and city leaders may not get their way. That’s because a groundswell of community organizing by union members, socialists and public rail advocates has built widespread opposition to the privatization deal, while tapping into growing awareness of both the rapacity of railroad corporations and the safety and labor struggles around freight rail.
The near-strike by railroad workers nationwide a year ago fueled interest in the concept of nationalizing American railroads. Now, the move by Cincinnati to go in the opposite direction — selling off the only municipally-owned interstate rail line in the country — has led to outrage and increased dialogue among residents about the importance of public assets and accountability.
The sale has powerful backers, including the appointed city board that oversees the railroad, eight of nine City Council members, Mayor Aftab Pureval and labor unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Iron Workers and Laborers locals. Norfolk Southern has spent $4.25 million on advertising and outreach to build support for the sale, through the PAC Building Cincinnati’s Future which it funds.
Early voting started in early October, and activists say opposition to the $1.6 billion proposal is only “snowballing,” in Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center organizer Magda Orlander’s words. The Cincinnati NAACP, Black United Front, and a former mayor have joined grassroots groups in opposition.
“When a big corporation, with all these investment interests behind it, throws around a wad of cash like that, it’s pretty clear who’s getting duped,” said Orlander.
Cincinnati built the Cincinnati Southern Railway in the 1870s to connect the thriving city with the American South. The city raised money to build the railroad itself, since Ohio law prevented municipalities from working with a private company on such investments.
For years, Norfolk Southern has paid Cincinnati $25 million a year to run its freight trains on the line, through a lease agreement.
During negotiations to renew the lease for 2026 through 2051, the city proposed raising the annual fee to $65 million. Norfolk Southern refused to pay more than $37 million a year but countered with their own offer — to buy the railroad outright. The city railroad board that oversees the line approved the proposal, and city officials have been pushing hard for it ever since.
Residents first got wind of the issue in November 2022, as local leaders tell it, not because of outreach by their elected officials but rather due to lobbying at the state level to amend the Ferguson Act, which was passed specifically to allow the railroad’s construction in 1869, by circumventing a Constitutional measure that otherwise would have prevented it. The change to the Ferguson Act would be needed to allow the city to spend the sale revenue on anything other than debt service.
“One day there was this revelation that apparently not only did the city own this railroad, but we were planning to sell it to Norfolk Southern,” said Simon Powell, chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter of Metro Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. “People were trying to figure out what was going on. The local Democratic Party seemed to be all on the same page about it, all in support of the sale. This is a publicly owned asset, and the public was not brought in before the decision was made.”
Local union leaders, DSA members and other activists quickly became suspicious and began seeking more information. It was not easy to obtain, as most city meetings about the deal were not public.
“Each week there is another piece of information that comes out — it kind of makes you feel batshit crazy,” said Orlander. “I have to remind myself this is not normal. None of this is above board.”
Some opponents were against the sale on principle since it represented the privatization of a hugely valuable public asset. Others were skeptical of the city’s plan for spending the windfall profit.
The city proposed to put the revenue in a trust fund and spend it on infrastructure like public parks. But critics said the process lacked transparency, and worried the funds would be siphoned off to expensive consultants or otherwise spent without public oversight and participation.
“The proposed legislation is vague enough that it could be used for a lot of things other than fixing the city’s existing capital assets,” noted former City Council member Kevin Flynn in a 2022 op-ed opposing the sale.
Then on February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed 280 miles away in East Palestine, Ohio, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history as clouds of toxic vinyl chloride and other chemicals were released and burned off in a “controlled” process sending fiery plumes and black clouds above the town.
The devastation sparked large-scale opposition to the idea of selling a rail line to this same company in Cincinnati.
Werner Lange, a retired sociology professor, lived on the outskirts of East Palestine when the disaster happened.
“It was terrible,” he said. “Everybody was worried, not only during the burn for the three days but especially after the detonation of those [rail] cars. That mushroom cloud scared the hell out of everybody.”
Soon after, Lange moved to Cincinnati to be closer to his grandchildren. A lifelong activist, he devoted himself to fighting the sale. Since early voting started in early October, he has stationed himself outside of the Board of Elections polling place, with a sign that says “No Sale.”
“People honk their horns and put their thumbs up,” he said. “The people pushing this think the voters are stupid, that they buy all the propaganda. But we knew about the railroad, we love the railroad and we don’t want them to steal it. How could anyone reward Norfolk Southern with our railroad after what they did to East Palestine? Every ‘yes’ vote is a kick in the teeth to the residents of East Palestine.”
A community campaign
The local DSA chapter and other activists came together to form a dedicated volunteer campaign known as Derail the Sale. They had their “soft launch,” as Orlander described it, at the city’s July 4 parade, where they debuted a float featuring a “human smoke plume,” oil slicks and a derailing train.
Organizers involved with the campaign connected with activists in East Palestine, and, through old-fashioned grassroots organizing, talked to thousands of Cincinnati locals about the proposed sale. By the end of October, DSA volunteers had knocked on 4,000 doors and presented at half of the city’s neighborhood council meetings, according to Orlander.
Norfolk Southern, meanwhile, was countering with a heavily-funded public relations initiative of its own. The company agreed to fund all efforts to secure a “yes” vote on the referendum. Media reports revealed that Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval’s re-election campaign treasurer was also serving as the treasurer of a campaign formed to promote the sale.
City leaders’ enthusiasm for the sale sparked anger and suspicion, especially given the city’s recent history of governmental corruption. In 2020, three City Council members were arrested on federal corruption charges. In October, one of them, Alexander Sittenfeld, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for bribery and attempted extortion.
Dr. Micah Niemeier-Walsh is an industrial hygienist and chief steward of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3840, which represents employees of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency overseeing occupational health and safety. Niemeier-Walsh heard in early September that the executive board of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council was set to vote the very next day on endorsing the sale. A member of the board, she rushed to talk with her fellow board members to explain the issue and try to convince them to oppose the sale. But in the end they voted 16-14 to endorse the proposal.
The decision still needed to be ratified by the labor council’s full house of delegates from different unions, at their meeting in early October. Niemeier-Walsh and other labor allies knocked on doors, made phone calls, and otherwise worked to spread the word about the vote and the issues surrounding the sale.
At their monthly membership meeting on September 11, AFGE Local 3840 members voted unanimously to oppose it. Their members and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, among others, turned out in force at the October labor council meeting. Niemeier-Walsh enlisted Matt Weaver, a railroad carpenter and Ohio legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to speak at the meeting.
“The people should be concerned,” said Weaver, who is a co-founder of the independent labor organization Railroad Workers United, which is pushing for nationalization of the railroads. “When everything depends on the profit margin, safety goes out the window. You’ve seen that in East Palestine.”
Ultimately, the labor council delegates voted to withdraw the executive board’s endorsement.
“While it was contentious, it was a good debate,” Niemeier-Walsh said. “I’m hoping this is a flexing of those muscles for politically engaging in the local labor council. I hope this will be the beginning of more of that and we’ll strengthen the Cincinnati Labor Council overall.”
While the city owns the rail line, railroad service is operated by Norfolk Southern through the lease, and it is plagued by the same safety, labor and service concerns that characterize the nation’s freight rail system.
The major railroad companies have been on a relentless push to run longer trains staffed by fewer railroad workers, using the system called Precision Scheduled Railroading that means many workers are essentially on call all the time, and penalized for declining shifts even when they are sick or need to make medical appointments. This approach has led to many of the labor and safety issues that were at the heart of last year’s near-strike.
Neither Norfolk Southern, Mayor Pureval’s office nor the office of the Cincinnati city manager responded to requests for comment on this story.
Backers of the sale in Cincinnati, including labor leaders who support it, have said it won’t mean any change in jobs or service. And at least in the near-term, that is likely true. But opponents of the sale say that voting it down is not just a way to preserve the status quo, but to open the chance for the public to have a greater say in railroad operations.
There is little that individual municipalities can do to regulate railroad operations or working conditions, as the railroad industry is federally regulated. But community leaders hope that if the city maintains ownership of the tracks, it could make more demands on Norfolk Southern in terms of track and viaduct infrastructure upkeep and maintenance responsibilities, which are covered by the lease.
“Precision Scheduled Railroading’s mantra is don’t fix anything until it’s broken, put Band-Aids on broken legs,” said Weaver. “If the city owns it, they can demand better.”
Meanwhile, many proponents of an expanded (and ideally nationalized) railroad system would like to see passenger rail service expanded and restored on lines where it was once a ubiquitous and crucial mode of public transport.
Currently across the nation, freight railroads — which own the vast majority of the nation’s tracks — take precedence over Amtrak, meaning long delays and severe limits on the quasi-public passenger rail company’s operations.
But on the tracks Cincinnati owns, it could theoretically give access to passenger rail and smaller freight railroad companies.
The city’s lease with Norfolk Southern notes that Cincinnati has rights to install and collect the majority of profit from the laying of fiber optic cable or other infrastructure along the tracks. This opportunity would likely be forfeited with a sale to a private operator.
“Norfolk Southern is going to be in our backyard for at least 25 years — how do we use that to pressure them in terms of environmental safety and worker protections?” asked Powell. “We don’t know these answers yet, but people are asking. Going forward, what happens with this railroad will have pretty drastic implications for the environmental future of this city. Rail isn’t a thing of the past, it’s a thing of the future.”
A looming victory?
As election day approaches, advocates say they are increasingly hopeful that the referendum will not pass, scuttling the sale plans. Lange and others say the great majority of early voters they’ve spoken to voted against the sale.
“It comes down to neighbors talking to neighbors, to make this decision that touches so many layers from environment to infrastructure across geographies,” Orlander said. “It’s a big decision that’s in everybody’s hands.”
There are two other major referenda on the ballot in Ohio this fall. A statewide measure would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution, thwarting anti-abortion activists’ attempts to pass state limits on reproductive rights.
Another city-level measure would raise the earned income tax to fund affordable housing for the city’s lowest-income residents. Activists are hopeful that turnout driven by those measures will also help drive votes against the sale.
And they hope a “no” vote is only the beginning — a catalyst for people to demand more transparency, examine the meaning of public assets and explore the possibilities that publicly-owned rail could hold.
“There’s the intersectionality of all of these movements, we are not alone here,” said Emily Spring, labor chair for the DSA chapter in Metro Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“Housing affects rail, rail affects housing. The railroad doesn’t run through wealthy neighborhoods,” she continued. “Once we win this vote, the City Council will see just how passionate the community is around maintaining public ownership of our rail.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.