Wall Street Caused the East Palestine Crisis

Rail companies are trying to turn astronomical 45% profit margins—and no one’s stopping them. An interview with railroad worker Matt Weaver.

Maximillian Alvarez

A video screenshot of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
This video screenshot released by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo by NTSB/Handout via Xinhua and GETTY IMAGES.

You can read the full transcript of this episode below.

It’s been almost three weeks since the catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in northeast Ohio thrust the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding area into a non-stop waking nightmare. It will take weeks, months, if not years to appraise the damage of this train derailment on the population, on the rail workers and first responders, and on the environment. While corporate spokespeople and many in the media try to paint this tragedy as some freak accident, we know better … We know better because we have been listening to railroad workers. 

In this urgent mini-cast, we discuss the nightmare in East Palestine with Matt Weaver, who has worked on the railroad since 1994, is a member of BMWED-IBT 2624, and was recently chosen to serve as legislative director for his state.

Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Matt Weaver: Morning Max. My name is Matt Weaver. Matthew A. Weaver. I am a 28 year railroader. Currently I’m the legislative director for our members, the BMWED members in the state of Ohio. So the Brotherhood of Mans Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I am the elected legislative director for Ohio. I’ve had a couple other positions with the union. Currently I am a carpenter foreman on the railroad and I am very concerned at the effects of this derailment and interested in seeing how the report comes back from the NTSP.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another special urgent episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. As y’all heard, we got the great Matt Weaver on. I’m so grateful to him for making time for this and you may have been seeing Matt around because he’s done some pretty incredible media spots of late, including on John Stewart’s podcast, some other mainstream media spots and it’s so, so good to see voices like his actually getting the attention they deserve in the mainstream media. Maybe if the mainstream media actually listened to workers this whole time, we wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of catastrophes like what we are currently watching unfold in East Palestine, Ohio.

Listeners have been asking us about it left and right. Of course, we all know the basics. A Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine earlier this month. That train that was carrying toxic materials including vinyl chloride, which was there was a quote, unquote controlled release” burning up of that toxic substance. There’s a giant black death cloud hanging over the region right now. Fish and animals are dying. People are reporting ill health effects. It is an absolute nightmare and there’s so much that the media has not been focusing on until maybe the past 48 hours that is connecting this catastrophe to all the things that we were talking about with railroad workers like Matt over the course of the past year. And we haven’t had the honor of having Matt on Working People before, but I did have the honor of being on a podcast with him and the great Ed Burmila on the Gin and Tacos podcast.

So we’re going to link to that in the show notes so you guys can hear more from Matt and hear less from me. So I’m going to shut up right now and Matt is getting hit up left and we got a limited amount of time with him. So Matt, I wanted to just kind of turn things over to you with the time that we have. I do not want to ask you to speculate on anything that we don’t currently know. I don’t want to put you in a position that’s going to get you or anyone else in trouble. As you said, we’re going to be waiting for the details from the report. We’re still a lot about this situation that we don’t know, but I wanted to ask as a veteran railroader, as someone who has been focusing intently and speaking loudly and forcefully about the systemic issues on the railroads that have made disasters like this more likely, I was wondering if you could just sort of walk us through what you see in the horrific derailment of this Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine. What the root causes were, what the fallout of this is going to be?

Matt Weaver: It’s very frustrating, Max. I do agree. I cannot speculate on the exact cause yet, but the NTSB has released a preliminary news release saying that it was axle involved. So there was video of the hot box throwing sparks as much as 20 miles before the derailment. And then it goes back to precision scheduled railroading, the business model of the railroad industry for doing more with less. And lately it’s been doing less with less. We’re moving less freight, still record profits, but less freight, crunch time, skeleton crews. The big issue here may be car inspection times, machinist friends, car shop friends of mine they’ve talked about in the past, having two guys inspect a car taking four or five minutes to do so now it’s down to one guy pushing for 90 seconds, less than 90 seconds as little as a minute. But I can’t seen that in writing.

So I think that we really need to see the NTSB come up with a conclusive response and let’s prevent this. Let’s not have this happen again. I know as of late I’ve seen the reports of Obama era administration’s safety regulations being rolled back by the Trump administration, maybe breaking technology, saying it costs too much. The report was that it costs too much to install the new electronic control brakes. I don’t know a whole lot about those, but how much cost is it going to be to really clean this up and protect American lives? I mean, railroads don’t run through the backyards of wealthy people. So this is the working class who’s suffering from this. And I heard yesterday wells that were as shallow as 35, 40 feet that these people have been drinking out of. Those are going to have to be demolished. I hope those people have lots of bottled water.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I mean it’s just like I seesaw between being just infinitely heartbroken for the people in and around East Palestine, for the crew on that train, for the first responders who we’re going to find out about the horrible health effects that they’re going to be enduring after this catastrophic derailment, right? Because it wasn’t just vinyl chloride. We’re finding from the EPA that there were more hazardous substances on that train that have already been detected in the soil and surrounding waterways. I mean, this is just a truly worst case scenario here. And I know that the reports from great outlets like The Lever, Breaking Points, so on and so forth, focusing on how the Obama administration really just caved and backed down from pressure from the freight rail industry. And then the Trump administration just gave the industry whatever the hell it wanted, and didn’t force these companies to implement electric braking systems, which may have mitigated this derailment disaster.

But I wanted to focus on the other part that you said, Matt, because this didn’t come out as much over the course of last year when we were all talking about the crisis on the railroads, right? Because I think a lot of the focus was on the engineers and the conductors, understandably so. But it was really important to hear folks like you talk about the maintenance of wayside. Talk about the car inspection side, the track maintenance side, and how that played into the larger discussion we were having. Can you just say a little more about that for folks who maybe didn’t hear that side of the story when we were talking about why the railroads are in such a crisis right now?

Matt Weaver: In my career, I’ve been on the railroad for 28 years. The business model of Precision Scheduled Railroading, PSR is decimating the manpower we’re down as much as 30% over the last 10 years in manpower of rail labor. So I see that it’s deferred maintenance. It’s often the bandaid on a broken leg style of repair and that’s kind of scary. We have a right to speak up and there are whistleblower protections and good faith challenges to things, but there’s been a lot of retaliation on rail workers, rail labor that we have our own law CFR 20109 whistleblower retaliation on railroads. I’ve actually had a case. So people are afraid to speak up because of things like this. And now back in the day when I hired him, we had six or seven guys on a track section gang, now it’s two or three. We had the bridge gang I hired on, we had six guys. Now it’s three or four. There’s not enough guys to do the work. And the work is being deferred till there’s an emergency when there’s a disaster. Oh yeah, we’ll fix it now.” But preventative maintenance is not as popular with the shareholders as it used to be in the sixties and seventies.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man, this is just what happens when you just do and commit to the just in time sort of production model. Again, everyone who listens to the show will know my rants about it, but we fucking told everyone that this was going to happen. You can’t just keep cutting operating costs year, after year, after year. Slashing the workforce in one of… That makes one of our most vital supply chains run year, after year, after year. We know the statistics, there used to be over 500,000 folks working on the railroads in 1980. Now there’s less than 150,000. The rail carriers have collectively cut 30% of their workforce in the past five or six years alone. They have done this to themselves and they have done this to rail workers, and they have done this to us because we are watching the, what happens when you keep throwing these preventative safety measures, these essential staff who are there to make sure that all the checks are in place, that everyone’s looking at, that you have people looking at the bearings on these trains, inspecting the cars, inspecting the wheels, inspecting the track, maintaining these parts of the infrastructure so that we don’t end up with catastrophic derailments like this.

And Matt, you said, because I think I have another interview coming out for Breaking Points with another friend of the show, Jay, a longtime trained dispatcher who we’ve interviewed a number of times on the show before. So listeners that’ll be out today, tomorrow, this weekend. But we talked about how he was looking at that same video you mentioned, Matt. The video where you can see the fire on the train like 20 miles outside of East Palestine. And again, we can’t speculate, but he said it looks like a bearing problem, which is something that these folks who are doing the car checks and the inspections would normally catch. But those workers have been slashed to the bone. And I just wanted to ask if you could say a little more about that there’s only 90 seconds that people have to check these cars. Could you just say a little more of what is supposed to be checked and how can you do that in 90 seconds?

Matt Weaver: So I’m not in the mechanical department. I’m in engineering. Bridges, buildings, and track. But the mechanical guys are in checking bearings, hoses, the knuckles. They’re looking at the rolling stock and they’re, their eyes on are what are finds this. There’s also discussions of hot box detectors that have been eliminated. I guess it’s not a federal law to have the hot journal hot box detectors. So we need to find out more about that as well. But it’s like real life Monopoly. In 1900, we had 132 Class 1 railroads, I believe. Now we’re down to seven pushing for a merger to make it six. And there’s the Monopoly board, four railroads on the board. And here we are. And society is going to suffer because of this. We already are about just in time shipping and shippers not getting their goods, and embargoes on shippers. The shippers were on our side and the STB hearings for, You need to hire more people, you need to get this shit moved, pick up our cars.” But just before we were able to go on strike, the shippers kind of turned on us and demanded that Congress impose the PEB, which is very frustrating. The shippers, they’re serving the shareholders too, but damn it, we need to get our voice heard. And I appreciate you helping us do that.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, we’re here with you always, brother, through thick and thin. Again, I wish we were talking under less horrific circumstances, right? Last time we chatted, it was because scab Joe Biden was forcing, and Congress were forcing a contract down your guys’ throats, giving derail carriers and their Wall Street investors everything that they wanted. Now we’re talking about a worst case scenario with this catastrophic and toxic train derailment in East Palestine. And this stuff is, it’s not inevitable. We can avoid this. We can reinvest in the workforce that maintains this vital infrastructure. We can make our rail system better if we just actually listen to workers and stop letting Wall Street destroy this vital component of our supply chain. And… Oh, go ahead Matt, please.

Matt Weaver: No other industry in America has these profit margins. They’re so spectacular. They’re pushing for an operating ratio of 55. And if you talk about the fast food industry, they’re shooting for operating ratio ratios to get under 90. It’s absurd that they’re making so much money. They’re making so much profit. They can afford to do this better.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, they absolutely can. They are making billions, and billions, and billions of dollars. And the other thing I want to say to folks, cause I got to let Matt go in a minute. Again, please follow railroad workers. Follow Railroad Workers United stay on top of this because what you will see is that yes, this catastrophic derailment in East Palestine is where the eyes of the nation are right now. But these derailments are happening all over the place. Like Norfolk Southern itself had two derailments the same week that Biden and Congress forced that contract down rail workers’ throats. We posted about it on the Real News Network Twitter account. You can go find it. And so Matt, I just wanted to sort of ask before I let you go, for folks who are watching this and feeling helpless, and scared, and infuriated about all this, what can they do to help? What can they do to support you and your fellow railroad workers, and just any sort of closing thoughts that you had about this situation and the larger cluster mess that we’re in right now?

Matt Weaver: At this point in time, Railroad Workers United, rail​road​work​er​sunit​ed​.org is where you find on the website is doing a fundraiser for making movies and videos to bring these circumstances to light. Just started a GoFundMe. They had one prior to, for bargaining that did really well. And we are actually hiring videographers and people as staff, which is very unusual for a cross craft solidarity group that really has no building. We’re not the union. We’re a group of union workers working together. All of rail labor coming together because we know we have the same needs in common. So definitely go to rail​road​work​er​sunit​ed​.org and listen in. A new release came out today with a couple of the things and that John Stewart clip.

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Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People Theme Song

Post-Production: Jules Taylor

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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