Chicago is known as the place where the nation’s railroads meet. And last weekend, the city also became the meeting spot for about 40 of the country’s most progressive and activism-driven railroad union workers when it hosted the biennial conference of Railroad Workers United (RWU), an independent labor organization founded in 2008 that includes members of the major rail unions, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labor groups. Their gathering dovetailed with the Labor Notes conference, which brings together activist trade unionists from around the world every two years.
Those converging in Chicago for the RWU conference included locomotive engineers, rail yard workers, people who build trains and employees of contractors that service locomotives. They represent a small wedge of activism and solidarity-building in an industry that, while crucial to the country’s economic well-being and one of the cleanest freight transport options, is also notorious for retaliation against workers who agitate for better conditions or speak out about injuries and safety hazards.
Blame the worker
A major target of the RWU conference, and of railroad workers’ organizing in general, was the concept of “behavior-based safety programs,” described by critics as “blame the worker” initiatives. Such programs — which workers say most major rail companies have instituted — discourage workers from reporting injuries or related safety hazards. The programs, also becoming prevalent in other industries, are based on the idea that almost all injuries are avoidable if workers follow proper protocols. The implication, critics say, is that when workers are hurt, it’s their fault.
“For example, the biggest cause of injuries is slips, trips and falls,” RWU leader Ron Kaminkow, a long-time railroad worker in Chicago and elsewhere, tells In These Times. “A rational person would say eliminate the hazards for slips, trips and falls. The industry says ‘keep your eyes on the path, maintain situational awareness, wear the right footwear.’ It could be a minefield, but if you’re following the rules you’ll never slip, trip or fall.”
The programs also typically involve a “team” aspect, in which workers are offered rewards when the whole workplace avoids reportable injuries. That creates peer pressure to dissuade injured workers from coming forward.
“It pits worker against worker, and can have a devastating effect on worker solidarity,” says Nancy Lessin, a labor educator and strategist with the United Steelworkers and an expert in behavior-based safety programs, at the RWU conference.
Railroad workers at Lessin’s talk describe the often insulting and ridiculous incentives they have been promised for avoiding injuries. “I got a funky junky clock [in return for a good safety record] that arrived broken and I slashed my hand taking it out of the box,” recalls one RWU member.
Jen Wallis is a BNSF railway employee in Seattle who has been in a years-long court battle over an injury she incurred in 2008 followed by a long-term suspension without pay. She says workers at her rail yard are given decorative “safety plates” each year for going injury-free. She continues, “Or you could bank your plates for a weird prize from these catalogues they give you, like a wet-dry bag.” (In These Times will explore Wallis’s case further in a coming story.)
J.P. Wright, a CSX locomotive engineer and “labor troubadour” out of Louisville, Ky., calls the incentives demeaning and unnecessary. “Of course I want to come home safely, you don’t need to write that on a mirror or a knife,” he says. “I have a wife and kid I want to go home to; [the safety message] is written all over them.”
“But these trinkets do make a difference,” Lessin tells the group. “Giving people donuts gets them to not report injuries.”
One-man crews and oil trains: a dangerous combination
Railroad workers have long been arguing against the industry push to run freight trains with a single operator, another focus of the RWU conference. Workers note that while trains used to have crews of four to six people, two is now a typical size—and many big train companies are trying to cut that number further.
Union leaders and rail employees say these “one-man trains” are unsafe and put an unfair strain on operators. The increasing use of rail to haul crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota and from the tar sands in Canada has meant increasing scrutiny on rail safety, as the potential for disaster is amplified exponentially when trains carry such flammable cargo.
Railroad workers, consumer safety advocates and members of Congress have all pointed to the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec in July as an example of how a one-man train and an oil cargo can be a deadly combination.
Kaminkow, who spent years working in different Chicago rail yards before moving to Nevada, notes that addressing the oil train issue can be a delicate balance for railroad workers. Carrying oil or other hazardous products can be disastrous when trains are understaffed or poorly maintained, he says. But railroad advocates, like many environmental and transportation leaders, agree that rail is the country’s most ecological mode of transportation with respect to emissions and environmental impact. And when operated safely, trains don’t leak or spill like pipelines.
RWU members and railroad unions have long been calling for all trains to be outfitted with something called “positive train control,” which automatically stops a locomotive in certain circumstances. Meanwhile, they argue against an industry and government push to put cameras in all locomotives, presumably to catch engineers dozing or not paying attention. This issue has also gotten recent attention after an accident at O’Hare International Airport, where a Chicago Transit Authority operator fell asleep and the train plowed into an escalator.
“That’s assuming we’re lazy and irresponsible; [that] if there’s no camera we’ll get a nap in,” says Kaminkow. “But it’s like driving on the highway — no one wants to fall asleep. A camera in a locomotive does not stop someone from nodding off.” That’s why companies need to install safety controls on trains instead of blaming workers, Kaminkow says.
Solidarity across borders
RWU is also striving to develop ties with railroad workers in other countries, and to see how their campaigns and interests can intersect. The RWU conference featured a French machinist member of the left-wing SUD-Rail union and rail union leaders from South Korea who held a major strike in December. Though the government owns and operates railroads in both countries, a wave of privatization is breaking up the railroads as they are sold off to companies. That guts the unions’ power; it could also mean lesser wages, benefits and protections for workers. RWU members also connected with the train workers from Brazil in town for Labor Notes, who are involved with the popular organizing efforts opposing Brazil’s plans to host the World Cup.
RWU members at the conference adopted resolutions promising to increase their ties with Mexican and Canadian workers, including by translating their website and materials into Spanish and French.
They also discussed a problem familiar to workers across many industries: the growing use of subcontracted, nonunionized workers. In Chicago, that includes the employees of Mobile Rail Solutions: contract workers who organized with the Industrial Workers of the World last year after a hard-fought campaign. In August 2013, Mobile Rail workers went on strike over what they described as unsafe, unsanitary conditions; they also accused the company of firing of workers involved in the unionization drive. The workers filed charges of Unfair Labor Practices against the company; according to the local’s Facebook page, Mobile Rail agreed in February to a $159,000 settlement negotiated through the National Labor Relations Board.
Mobile Rail worker and IWW activist Ahern Owen says that since the strike, the company has remedied unsafe conditions such as those on the 10-foot towers that workers climb in order to pour sand used for track friction into trucks.
But the union still remains in contentious contract negotiations with the company. Owen says Mobile Rail has refused to agree to important union demands on issues, including the use of subcontractors and the status of the union if the company is sold.
In the past, only people directly employed by railroads have been members of RWU; at the conference, RWU agreed to also extend official membership to employees of third-party companies contracted by rail corporations — including the workers at Mobile Rail.
The bigger picture
Packing up RWU ball caps, T-shirts and other fundraising merchandise at the end of Labor Notes, Kaminkow reflects on the long odds facing RWU, especially given that they are usually working without the official support or involvement of the major rail unions. (While many RWU members are from major unions, union leadership typically does not endorse RWU activities.) Kaminkow feels they’ve made slow yet meaningful progress in educating railroad workers and the general public about issues like behavior-based safety and the risks of one-man trains.
At RWU’s party during Labor Notes, in a conference room adorned with railroad memorabilia, workers share stories and details of different rail yards around the country. They talk about the otherworldly sound of hundreds of rail cars mounting the “hump” of a rail yard and then sliding down different tracks; the various lantern signals that tell engineers to move or stop a train; and about waiting in motels for the call to get back on the tracks for another long haul.
“It’s a tough lifestyle, but for guys like me, with a high school degree, it’s a good living,” says Ed Michael, who worked for decades for railroads out of southern Illinois. Meanwhile, Wright strolls through the crowd with his guitar strumming railroad and labor songs, often adding his own lyrics to reference contemporary struggles.
“Hate the bosses,” says Kaminkow to sum up a typical railroad worker’s attitude. “Love the job.”
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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%.