Railroad Whistleblowers Keep Losing Their Jobs

Michael Paul Lindsey II, a locomotive conductor and engineer of 17 years, tried to sound the alarm on railroad safety. Not long after, he was fired.

Maximillian Alvarez

A Union Pacific freight train is seen traveling on April 21, 2023 in Round Rock, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

When we hear the term whistleblower,” we tend to think of names like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange — people who have risked their freedom, even their lives, to expose government lies, abuses of power, and state secrets that the public needs to know about. But there are a range of federal statutes designed to protect those who blow the whistle on their employers, too, especially when those employers are breaking the law and/​or endangering their workers and the public.

Michael Paul Lindsey II is a military veteran who has worked for Union Pacific as a trained locomotive conductor and engineer for the past 17 years, and he has maintained good standing as an employee throughout that time. Over the course of his career on the rails, however, Paul has seen and experienced firsthand how corporate greed has destroyed the railroad industry, damaged our supply chain, run workers into the ground, and put the public in danger. Even though he knew it could put his career at risk, Paul has been outspoken on these issues, using his popular TikTok channel, writing op-eds, and giving interviews in which he has exposed, with a veteran railroader’s insight, the destructive business and labor practices of Union Pacific and the other Class 1 rail carriers, and how those practices have contributed to catastrophes like the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Then the company came for him. In suspected retaliation for his whistleblowing, Paul has officially been fired from Union Pacific. In this urgent and exclusive interview, we talk with Paul about his career on the rails, the changes he’s seen take hold of the industry he loves, and the dubious circumstances that led to his firing.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: I’m Michael Paul Lindsey, former Union Pacific locomotive engineer, 17 years and active whistleblower in the railroad industry.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well welcome everyone to another 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 and The Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you are hungry for more worker and labor focus shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please, please support the work that we are doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing you all more important conversations with workers around the country and beyond every week. You can support us by leaving us positive reviews of the show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. You can share these episodes on your social media and share them around with your coworkers, your friends, and your family members.

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My name is Maximillian Alvarez and we’ve got a really important episode for you guys today. It’s no secret to anyone who listens to the show or follows my work here or at The Real News Network over on Breaking Points or if you follow the great work of my colleague Mel Buer, you guys know that we have been very committed to covering the ongoing struggle by railroad workers across the freight rail industry here in the United States to fight against the Wall Street led corporate takeover and destruction of the industry and a vital component of our supply chain. You guys heard us all throughout the past year and a half, interview railroad worker after railroad worker. We talked to conductors and engineers like Michael Paul Lindsey, our guest today. We’ve talked to Carmen, we’ve talked to maintenance of way folks, we’ve talked to dispatchers. We’ve tried to give you guys access to as many rank and file voices of the people who actually make this industry run.

And this is an industry upon which basically every other industry depends. Everything that you buy on the shelves at the supermarket was on a railroad car at some point or another. Right. And or virtually everything that you buy. Right. And so this is why obviously so many people got so invested in the high stakes contract dispute between the 12 unions representing over 100,000 railroad workers in the freight rail industry and the class one freight rail carriers, i.e. the companies that own the railroads. We watched all this play out last year. I’m not going to run through the whole saga again. I know you guys have heard me do so a number of times, but we reported as much as we could on the issues that railroad workers have been going through and what their working conditions, their quality of life or how much was left of it after years of corporate destruction of this once good blue collar job.

We talked about how those kinds of worsening working conditions for workers on the railroads were indicative of the larger sort of system change that has taken hold of the railroad industry. The same corporate philosophy that focuses exclusively and intently on slashing operating costs year after year after year, cutting labor, cutting maintenance, cutting basic safety, necessary safety measures, all for the purposes of jacking up prices on shippers, reducing labor costs, piling more work onto fewer workers, making their work more unsafe, more unbearable, making the trains longer and heavier and more wieldy. Also, that the railroads could end up in the position that they’re currently in where they are raking in billions of dollars of profits every year. The railroad industry is more profitable than it has ever been. Stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, executive pay have all gone through the roof in recent years. This is what the corporate led destruction of everything looks like in one industry.

But I think one of the reasons that so many of us got so invested in this struggle is because we see in the railroads a tale of the destruction of our very society, right? Because these are the same array forces that are destroying everything from Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Right now, writers and potentially actors are on strike fighting against very similar dynamics where the greedy studios are destroying everything that we once loved about Hollywood so that they can maximize their profit and minimize their operating costs. We see this in healthcare with nurses and hospital staff going on strike, fighting against the sort of just parasitic conglomerates that are owning so many of these hospitals and that are pushing nurses to the breaking point, piling more work onto fewer people. Is this sounding familiar? Giving them untenable nurse to patient ratio so that they can’t provide the quality of care that they were trained to give, and many of them are fleeing the industry or leaving hospitals that desperately need staff, just like is happening on the railroads, railroad workers are quitting at record numbers because they can’t take it anymore.

So you guys get the point. The point that I’m making is that what has been happening to the railroads is happening to so many other industries. It is happening. We are feeling the effects of it in so many other realms of our lives. And that is why as always, we need to be there to support the workers who are actually taking a stand against this crap because the government isn’t taking a stand against it. Corporations aren’t going to change their ways out of the goodness of their own hearts if they even have hearts left.

So it’s got to be up to us. And I think we saw some really hopeful signs of people rallying behind railroad workers like Michael Paul Lindsey, but we still have a very long way to go. This is still very much a David verse Goliath story, and sadly, Goliath has no qualms, no scruples, no shame when it comes to doing everything that Goliath can to squash the Davids of the world, to silence workers, to force us into unsafe and untenable working conditions and just beat all will out of us so that we accept our subservient position in their grand profit making scheme.

And Michael Paul Lindsey, our guest today, has been a truly courageous freedom fighter in that regard. And I don’t use those words lightly. Right. Paul was instrumental in the contract dispute last year when so little was being reported on that contract dispute in the mainstream media, especially from the side of the workers. Paul was out there being a whistleblower. He has built up a sizeable following on TikTok. He was using that TikTok channel to communicate information to other railroaders as well as the general public about what he and his fellow railroaders are going through on a day-to-day basis. And then also I had the honor of interviewing Paul for Breaking Points. We’ve interviewed him at The Real News Network. And when I was doing the rounds last September, and then again when we were approaching a potential rail shutdown in late November, early December, Paul and I were doing the full court press trying to get on as many other outlets and shows as we could to make sure that people knew what the hell was actually going on and why they needed to support workers like Paul.

And it didn’t stop there. We all know the story and I know I’m going on a lot, but I promise I’m going to toss it over to Paul in a second. But I really want to make sure that everyone kind of remembers the long kind of march that we’ve had over the past year and a half to get to the conversation that we’re going to have today with Paul. But we all know what happened in December. Scab Joe Biden as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress conspired to crush a potential railroad strike, force a contract down workers’ throats, essentially endorse all of the bad greedy practices by the rail carriers, giving them no incentive whatsoever to change their ways to address the issues that workers like Paul have been whistle blowing about and screaming about to anyone who will listen.

And then the mainstream media kind of moved on at the end of the year and what happened on February 3rd, just a couple months later, East Palestine, Ohio, the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment there, which as people who listen to the show know, has completely destroyed and upended the lives of everyone in that area, including the railroad workers who were on that train, right? And so if rail companies and the government had actually listened to people like Paul, they could have seen catastrophe like East Palestine coming and they could have done more to prevent it, but alas, they did not. And that brings us to our conversation today because Paul was there like he was last year during the contract fight, he was there posting updates on his TikTok channel. He was there whistleblowing about the conditions on the railroads that contributed to the avoidable catastrophes that were seeing all the derailments around the country, including the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine.

And how did Paul’s employer reward him for that? They fucking fired him. Right. And we here at Working People, we at The Real News Network stand in solidarity with Paul. We unquestionably condemned what we see as a very clear cut case of retaliation for whistleblowing because everything that Paul has said has been in the public interest. He has a deep, deep level of expertise and experience in this industry. The information that he has been bringing to the public is information that the public deserves to know because these trains are going through our neighborhoods, they’re going past our houses, they are causing damage to our communities like East Palestinian and beyond. And so the public has a right to know these things. Paul has spoken nothing but the truth about the conditions on the railroads, and for that he has been summarily fired by Union Pacific.

And so that is the context of our conversation today. Paul, I’m incredibly sorry that you are going through this and we are sending nothing but love and solidarity to you. And I promise listeners, we’re going to dig into all of this insofar as we can given the kind of current and pending litigation. But we’re here with this sort of exclusive one-on-one with Paul to sort of talk about his life and work on the railroads, to talk about where we are right now in this country, in the rail industry, and how his career over the course of the past 17 years, right, he has seen the destruction of this industry.

He has tried to do something to stop it. And we’re going to talk about what we can all do to stop this silencing of him and other railroad workers who are trying to yeah, stop the destructive practices of this industry and stop the public from enduring more destruction at the hands of the greedy rail carriers. So without further ado, and that’s enough from me, I apologize for talking so long. I want to kind of come back to you, Paul, and before we get into all this shit and there’s a lot of shit to get into, like I mentioned, you and I have done a lot of interviews together. We’ve texted, we’ve communicated throughout this whole saga.

And like I said, you have been an invaluable source of information throughout all of this, but we’ve never had you on the show to sort of do the full Working People treatment and get to know more about your backstory and kind of how you came to work on the railroads, how you came to be the person that you are. So let’s do that first. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for a long time. So tell me about where you grew up and yeah, just kind of what life in young Paul’s world was like.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Well, I sure appreciate you having me on Max. It’s always great to do a segment with you and talk with you, and I really, and I appreciate the kind words I feel kind of undeserving there. But yeah, I grew up in several places, actually, it’s kind of a weird story. Most of my life growing up was in California, but I also lived back east in Georgia for a little bit, Tennessee for a little bit. But everywhere I lived as a kid, I was always following the trains. I always loved the trains. There’s a lot of funny stories related to it. I mean, I used to live at my grandmother’s house in Tifton, Georgia for a while. We would go on nightly walks, we’d always go by the Norfolk Southern line out there. And back to California. I used to watch the Southern Pacific trains prior to the merger going by.

And I always loved the railroads, always wanted to work for the railroad and always wanted to be an engineer. And that continued my entire life. I just, and it wasn’t just an obsession with trains necessarily. I really genuinely just love the railroad, loved the industry. I haven’t had books on it. For example, there was a book back in the 90s, The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does. And it was all about the industry and how it works, the technological changes, how rail cars are built and detectors. And it’s just kind of a dated book now, but it still is very, that’s just one of the many books that I ingested over the years to kind of learn about the industry. I’m a huge follower of the history, the industry. I have a whole collection at home. It’s actually in storage now. Books are in storage right now because I’ve been traveling.

But I have quite a collection of railroad related books, especially Southern Pacific and California related. But I’m trying to have a good understanding of the industry and its history, where it’s been and where it’s going. And I know that growing up I always would see lines that were abandoned or pulled out a service and wanted the industry to grow and hope there would be a need for them again. And unfortunately, all I’ve seen all of these years from being a kid and from working at the railroad myself is the railroad shrinking itself into effective oblivion. It’s shrinking itself into almost obscurity as an industry now while the rest of the world is developing technologically to actually modernize the rail systems into the future. And everywhere I’ve traveled to, I always try to kind of observe the railroads from an outsider perspective. Like when I traveled to Ukraine a few years ago and I got to see some of the trains going into the central station in Kyiv, and even being, let’s say a maybe outdated rolling stock and mode of power, they were still fully electrified and they ran a very, very efficient operation.

And just this spring, I was in Italy going 190 miles an hour on a train. And it’s amazing to see. You didn’t even need to look at a schedule because you just knew if you showed up at the station, there’d be a train leaving within 10 or 15 minutes. It just works over there. Other countries are investing into their infrastructure. And I see how we have a highly consolidated rail system that has consolidated into larger and larger monopolies. And throughout my career at the railroad, which started in 2006, I’ve just seen more money be diverted from the physical plant of the railroad itself into stock buybacks.

Then I’ve also seen this change in culture at the railroad. When I started 06, you could see it in their advertising campaigns. Back then companies like that still advertised. And I remember these commercials, these Union Pacific commercials. Building America was the slogan, and we’re still kind of running in the years after 9-11, the patriotic movement. And they put the American flags on their locomotives and they have these commercials, you can still look them up on YouTube and just this deep voice of the narrator describing their powerful history of building and growing the United States. And you see this train of the same colors of the sunset going across the screen into the distance and Union Pacific, Building America. And it made you proud to work for that company.

Over the years, that image has just gone away and they keep changing their image to not even care about their public image anymore, not care about growth, not care about image. I know maybe it’s anecdotal, but it was just such a shame: last year I happened to be off for the 4th of July, the parade. There were three different parades in Pocatello where I live, and they had all the employers in town, all the big businesses. And here is Union Pacific, the largest oldest employer in Pocatello. And they did not have any presence there. No pride in the community. They didn’t even have a maintenance truck with someone throwing candy, nothing. That’s one of the major cultural shifts that I’ve seen in the industry is just the disregard and contempt for the general public.

And then also the share buybacks where they would happily divert money that could go into growing and modernizing, electrifying, becoming a 21st century railroad and diverting that into share buybacks. Every single quarter, every single year for, I don’t even know how many years now, but I’ve been following it, they consistently put more money into share buybacks than they do their infrastructure, bridges, tracks, better rolling stock, electrification, better wages. They don’t do it anymore. And it almost seems like the industry now that I love and I love the industry, it seems like the industry that I love is ruled by people that would rather see the railroad eventually go bankrupt, fold into itself and receive a bailout. Because they know it’s too big to fail. They know they’re just like the airlines. They’re just like the banks. They can make any irresponsible business decision they’d like, and eventually they’ll just be bailed out and given a golden parachute. The people responsible won’t be held accountable.

That’s what’s been happening in the industry. And it was this kind of shift that made me want to be vocal and speak out against what’s been happening. And I knew the risk and I knew that eventually they were going to come after me for it. I really did. There was no question about it, but it became more and more important to me because I cared about the survival of the industry and also how it was affecting safety for communities like East Palestine and every other community.We’re 10 years past the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Canada. And really safety practices, maintenance practices especially, have just essentially fallen off a cliff.

A Union Pacific freight train is seen traveling on April 21, 2023 in Round Rock, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Maximillian Alvarez:I have so many thoughts running through my head. And I guess before we kind of get deep into that, I wanted to kind of jump back to something that you said earlier before we get too far away from it because I actually didn’t know that you grew up in California. So did I. Were you in SoCal or are you in Northern California?

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Southern California.

Maximillian Alvarez: Same here.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Yeah. So Ventura, I spent a lot of time in Ventura, California, and then also Paso Robles, California. I was there for a little bit. I still have family in the central coast, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero area there. Actually, I just spent three weeks down there. That’s one of my favorite places in the entire world. I’d live on the central coast again, if I could justify it financially right now. But really what’s been tying me to Idaho has been the railroad for all this time because seniority has just helped me in Idaho. But California is where I started working at the railroad too. I started in Oakland in fall of 2006, and that was after I’d been deployed to Iraq and the Marine Corps most of the year. After the deployment, I dropped the reserves and was hired on for the railroad out of the Bay Area. I worked for Union Pacific in San Luis Obispo for a while.

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s such an interesting kind of chapter to your story because it hooks back to my connection to this story as well, because I remember I grew up in Orange County.

But what you described is something that really hits home literally for me, because I can remember seeing the kind of changes to my town growing up. I’ve told the story, I believe on this show that I remember being young, but conscious of a fight happening in my hometown of Brea, California, which was like, I mean Brea, it’s named after tar. It was an oil boom town. There’s still oil rigs dotting the hills that my brothers and I used to run around and climb on. It was ill-advised to do so, but we would, that’s the landscape of my childhood. They’re everywhere. And so there was that history there. But I also remember there being remnants of the kind of old world of Brea.

There were a couple of buildings left over from the 19th century where I believe it was a saloon and a bank that some people in town were trying to get the city to give it historical status so that we could preserve those buildings. And they lost that fight and it all got bulldozed. Maybe there’s a plaque somewhere over there now, but now it’s like a shopping center. It’s a promenade. There’s no memory. Yeah, there’s no memory of that history anywhere. But in that same vein, just down the road from there, if you keep going down that street, there was a rail line that passed across from my junior high school, and I remember the process of that rail line being in use to no longer being in use to just being something that you would drive over, to now it’s paved over and now it’s, I think a bike path. And I’m not saying that in and of itself is a bad thing. Maybe that rail line wasn’t necessary, but still, it gave me this sort of sense of the railroads as, yeah, this sort of fading technology, this sort of the progression into the future as far as the world that was around me was concerned, like a sort of phasing out the railroads.

And that’s what I came to this story with last year when I talked to you, when I talked to Ron Kaminkow, all the great folks at Railroad Workers United, Matt Parker, right? All the homies, Jeff Kurtz, that was all rattling around in my brain and then it kind of became clearer to me. It was like, Oh, that wasn’t a natural progression.” In fact, railroads can and should be part of our future but what I was actually witnessing without realizing it was what you just sort of described, the kind of slow destruction of vital industry, not because of technological progress, but for increasing profits per executives and shareholders.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: That was definitely part of it. But it began long before that because you see, if you go back to the sixties and seventies, we also started building subsidized highway systems in interstates in the United States. I’m not criticizing interstate highways and everything. I love them, I love traveling on them. But we kept the same regulatory structure on the railroads during that time and it wasn’t until the Staggers Act in the 1980s where they actually allowed the railroads to shed some of these regulations, but those regulations are also very misunderstood as well. So I’ve had this discussion with a lot of old time railroaders that try to say… because the guys I hired on were hired on in the sixties, and they try to say, oh, if they’d only reregulate the railroads back to the way they had it, that would’ve fixed our problems. But not necessarily, these regulations that were in place before were actually created by the railroads themselves.

It’s almost like business has never really changed. They’re always looking for ways to monopolize and control the market and to not have to compete with each other. So if you go back historically, there was a time when railroads in the late 1800s were adamantly competing at each other’s throats because they had been overbuilt, because they had been subsidized by all kinds of different governments because every community wanted a railroad at the time. There were some markets that were just ridiculously oversaturated. There were about eight or 10 different ways to get a load of freight from Omaha to Chicago on different railroads. So they didn’t want to compete with each other because they wanted to be profitable. So they kept trying to make underhanded agreements with each other and forcing rates, but they weren’t enforceable by law because of antitrust law. You can’t do that.

So they lobbied to form the Interstate Commerce Commission and to have the government set their rates to basically set a fair rate saying that if you haul a carload of this type from this point to this point, this is how much it’s going to cost. It made it to where they didn’t have to compete. They could just operate a big cozy cartel. And that worked great for a long time because you didn’t have trucks, you didn’t have planes. The trains were the only game in town. But fast-forward to the end of the 20th century and those regulations were still in place. Meanwhile, trucks and planes and government subsidized highway systems could undercut them and were not regulated to such an extent. So a lot of railroads went bankrupt during that time and it’s such a shame because there’s just beautiful marvels of modern railroad engineering.

Like for example, the Milwaukee Road going across Washington and Montana through Butte and Missoula and up and over the pass into Avery Idaho and across Washington and Snoqualmie Pass and beautiful tunnels and trestles, it was the last major transcontinental railroad to be built, was built to the highest standard. And yet in 1980, they abandoned the entire thing all the way from Miles City, Montana to Tacoma, Washington. And you can bike on it now. There’s a bike path on the Montana Idaho border called the Route of the Hiawatha. Wonderful experience if you’re ever up there. But you bike over these huge trestles and you started out by going through a couple mile long tunnel from the Montana side and emerging on the Idaho side, you got to have headlights on your bike. It’s pitch black in the middle of it, but you ride down it. You see these beautiful pieces of engineering marvel that the rail industry built.

But as these railroads consolidated out of necessity, they became bigger and bigger and bigger. And now over the last decade or two, especially with interest rates falling and monetary policy favoring bailouts and borrowing money, they’ve joined into the whole, let’s borrow money so we can buy back our own shares” nonsense and just let the industry fall just like everyone else. But we’re starting to see an industry now that’s resembling what you talked about growing up in Southern California and seeing a line that was active, transitioned to not being active, transitioned to be a bike path. There’s a lot of Americans that believe that the rail industry is antiquated and out of date, and to a degree it is. However, what they really need to realize is that you’d be saying the same thing about the aviation industry or about the highway industry if no major improvements had occurred since the 1960s.

If we hadn’t made any highway investments or any investments in new airplanes or new anything since the 1960s, people would be saying that infrastructure’s out of date too but that’s because we don’t really put money into it. And I guess that kind of transitions us to… a question I’ve been asking is why do we tolerate this? Why do we tolerate allowing our vital infrastructure — and it’s more vital than people realize — to deteriorate like this? It clearly has no place being entirely held in private hands anymore. It is kind of like, look at our freeway system. It’s constantly being rebuilt. Bridges are being rebuilt, modernized, updated with higher speed interchanges and turnouts. Same thing with our airport system. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it is constantly being modernized and constantly having capital put into it because we know that if we were to function as a civilization, we need a functional transportation system that’s simply not happening to any significant extent in the rail industry.

It’s going to be to our own detriment as a country.. So we have tons of trucking companies operating along the interstates every day and they’re private companies, and it’s not a perfect system, but they compete and it works. But no one’s suggesting that a trucking company should own Interstate 40. That would be ridiculous. If we were to suggest, hey, we should privatize an interstate, that would be nuts. No one would support that, but yet that’s what we’re doing in the rail industry.

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Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Now the more that I talked to workers like yourself and learned about just the sort of Frankenstein’s monster setup that we have with our rail system. And then I started talking to rail workers in other countries, like the RMT folks in the UK, and they were comparing their system to ours and they were like, wait, the companies own the rail lines over there? It’s like, how does that fucking work? And I was like, I don’t know man, apparently it doesn’t.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: It doesn’t work very well anymore.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, the answer is it doesn’t. And we could be, and you’re right. I think that it has this crushing effect on our imaginations where if you go so long with the system set up like this, people just start to accept that there’s no other way to do it and they are. This is the kind of American exceptionalism problem. It’s like if you keep telling yourself that you’re the apex of everything in the whole world and you don’t look at what the rest of the world is doing, you’re not going to realize how much we’re all getting fucked over. We could have a much better rail system in this country. We should be demanding it because we deserve it.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: And that’s why when you bring up passenger rail and bring up how it works in other countries, so many people just… it’s like you’re talking in a foreign language. They don’t even understand because they’ve never seen it. And they don’t even question like, oh, back to your deal with Brea and those old buildings and those old parts of town that existed and then they tore it down to build a shopping center. So many Americans just can’t imagine it because they’ve never traveled abroad. They can’t imagine an area where you don’t have a dirty strode. I don’t know if you know what that is. Dirty strode with lots of traffic and all the traffic is stopped and it’s dangerous with strip malls and big box stores lining, it’s not natural. It’s not the way of natural human development that humans have developed for thousands of years. And it’s not natural to other countries, especially when you leave North America. It’s kind of a uniquely North American problem because Canada has that problem as well with the sprawling car based development for everything. But yeah, if you’ve never seen it, then they’re not going to understand it.

Maximillian Alvarez: You’re not going to understand it. And again, this is why it’s so important for people to hear your side of the story and not just the company side, which in the media, if we hear about these issues at all, we generally only hear about the company side. And I wanted to talk a bit about your experience as a worker in that industry. Again, we’re working our way up to the kind of clusterfuck that you and I were talking about all through last year and the Union Pacific firing you for whistle blowing about it. But before we get there, I want to go back to a young Paul, a veteran coming off deployment, going up to Oakland and starting to work on the railroads.

What was that like? Granted, after doing so many interviews with railroaders over the past year and a half, I actually do feel like our listeners have a bit more of a sense of what you guys do every day. But I still feel like I’m learning new stuff every time I ask this question. So I guess just walk us through your first few days, weeks, months. What does that job entail? How did you acclimate to it? And then let’s talk about how you have seen those changes take hold over the past 17 years and what those changes translated to for you and other workers on the railroads themselves.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Okay. Well, first few days, weeks, my first introduction to the railroad, I know I did my interview session, started out with a hiring session where they had a whole room full of people that had been called in. We were on the upstairs floor at the Jack London Inn in Oakland, Jack London Square. And there was a whole room full of people. And this whole story here will show you the difference in the standard that the railroad used to try to set on new hires versus today. So the first thing they always did is try to scare everyone in the room away from the line of work. They tell you, oh, you’re going to be working every holiday, every weekend. You’re going to be on the job nonstop. Your wife’s going to divorce you. Your kids are going to hate you. You’re going to develop an alcohol problem, you’re going to… everything else.

They just tried to do everything in the world to get people to scatter. And the room just slowly emptied more and more. The people that were left, they gave a reading comprehension test and that was one of the first things you passed. And the reason for that is because we operate on the general code of operating rules and that describes how you keep trains from hitting each other. They’re both running both directions on the same track. So you’ve got to have very specific, very unambiguous ways of describing how these movements are to take place so the trains don’t hit each other. And so the first thing they do is they give you reading comprehension, a reading comprehension test. And then after that we went to lunch and they told us they’ll call you if you’re to come back for an interview. And when it was all said and done and they called people back to interview, there were only five or six people left. So that was the initial weed out process and the way it always was back then, they had very, very high standards.

Anyway, long story short, I started class up in Roseville, California. And a stupid memory I’d just got back from Iraq, I hadn’t driven in a long time, and it rained that morning and oh man, I just about rear-ended somebody sliding on the rain. I forgot how to drive during my deployment, but made it in there on time fortunately because they had a no-questions-asked, if you showed up late the first day, you were done, you’re automatically gone. Even if it was 30 seconds late and I saw that happen to a few people. They showed up 30 seconds late the first day and they’re like, sorry, we’re not interested. You can leave.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: So that was the kind of high standard that was set. Fortunately, I was very punctual and I’ve always been that way throughout my career.

Maximillian Alvarez: So I guess my imagination of… I’ve often thought, I was like, man, what if I ended up working on the railroads? What would that look like? Apparently you just gave me my answer. I wouldn’t have made it past the interview phase because the Alvarezs are a famously unpunctual people.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Well, the standards have dropped a lot because they’ve run all of their employees off and so many people have quit or retired early or just left. And that’s why they’re giving out these big hiring bonuses now. It’s unbelievable, they’re trying to go to federal regulators and get the FRA to sign off on doing a lot of the training remotely now in class or on a Zoom call, do online training for your new hire stuff, which obviously you’re not going to be able to observe people properly, weed them out or anything. The amount of safety standards for new hires, they’ve just thrown it out the window because all they want is to hit their 55 operating ratio. That’s all they care about now. And so yeah, nowadays, punctuality probably wouldn’t matter. You’d probably be able to skate right through it.

Maximillian Alvarez: Again, after talking to you guys, I think I’m fucking good. After seeing what you guys have been through and the way that this industry treats its workers, I’m all set, but I want to talk about that and yeah, keep talking on this thread. Tell us more about the kinds of… what goes into being an engineer and the kind of route you would take, kind of things you’d haul and when and how you started seeing that standard, that high standard that the industry was setting for you and the people that it hired started to change.

A trip that may have taken seven hours in the past is now consistently taking 12 hours.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Well, most of my career I worked as a conductor, and the conductor works as the second person on the crew. They’re the ones in charge of the train. So everything behind the locomotives back, also everything needs to be done on the ground. Adding cars to the train, removing cars from the train, switching cars, communicating with the engineer, speed restrictions and everything else. But getting an engineer promotion is the next promotion. It took me eight years to have enough seniority to get that promotion and it was a long eight years waiting because I was itching to get over there and learn how to run trains. So definitely my career changed from a personal enjoyment perspective a lot more when I got to finally go to take my engineer promotion. I did during my time as a conductor, I got to do an immense amount of things during that time.

I worked in a lot of places, all over California. How I ended up in Pocatello was that we were kind of in the early phases of the slowdown before the financial crisis in the fall of 2007 now. And you always see slowdowns on the railroads first. They start to slow down first before everything else does. And they were looking for people around the country in different places and they called and said, I put in my name to transfer somewhere else because I didn’t want to get furloughed. And they said, Well, do you want to go to Pocatello?” And so I gave up my seniority, started my seniority over in Pocatello, and that’s how I ended up there. But since then, I’ve temporarily worked in Chicago, worked in San Antonio, worked in parts of Utah, Elko, Nevada, Grand Junction, Colorado. Been to a lot of places. But when I finally got to take engineer promotion, that is when you really, really, you just become a much better employee, I think as an engineer.

Maybe employee’s the wrong way to put it, but a better railroad because engineer training was intense. It’s intense for various reasons. For one, if you are a conductor and you have a whole career in front of you, there’s a lot of people that just never take promotion because they’re not interested and they stay conductors forever. If you take engineer promotion and you fail out of it, you don’t have a job anymore, you can’t go back to being conductor. So that’s the first thing is when you take promotion, you just know that you need to pass it. If you want to have a career, you need to pass it because once you start, you’re committed. And it was a solid six months of working nearly nonstop. And part of the training was down in Salt Lake and this was your classroom and simulator training and we went there two different times.

And I really enjoyed Salt Lake in a lot of ways. It was interesting, they had one room that was devoted all to air brakes and all of the subsystems of air brakes. And I thought I understood the air brake system and rail cars beforehand but after that, it had a full miniature setup. By miniature, it had all the full life-sized parts of the locomotive, the control console, the brake cylinders on the cars, but all consolidated into about 20 feet going across the room. So it basically simulated having two locomotives and two freight cars and [inaudible 00:49:32] a train device on the rear and all the moving parts. And you could play around with a full real size control console and see how all the systems functioned together. You learn very, very in depth into GCOR rules and then part of your day. So GCOR and airbrake rules, all the rules that we operate by and all the context, every sort of scenario and context and maybe scenarios that you didn’t understand because you’d never seen before related, just weird situations.

And then part of your day was classroom and the other part of the day was simulator. And every day was a scenario. You got the paperwork the day before of the scenario, how big your train is, your max speed limit, your tonnage, and what line you’re going to be on and they would try to compete. You’d compete for speed, fuel efficiency, and also on train handling because it rates all of your draft and all of your draft, which is your pulling force and your buff, which is your compression force and all of your other lateral and vertical forces. It counts all that and measures you and pumps out a score. But there’s also an FRA score, your license score, which if you do something that’s an FRAD certifiable offense in there, it zeros out that score and you automatically fail it.

But they intentionally try to do that to you and everyone gets decertified on the simulator while they’re there because that’s the place to do. It’s to learn and then you never forget that rule again. So I remember one day in particular, and it was a scenario and they hyped us up, they’re like, Hey, so tomorrow it’s about, it’s a speed run and we’re going to measure you on distance covered in time, and we’re going to compete and whoever gets the highest score, they’re going to win a prize basically.” And so they’re distracting us on the prize. And I spend all this time at home trying to learn this route. I even looked it up on Google Maps and then [inaudible 00:51:44] timetables and tried to learn the speeds on this segment and was all ready to go. And man, I started it. The scenario started, the train was already moving about 15 miles an hour.

And I’m like, okay, I’m in a permanent 60 mile an hour. I’m going to get it up to speed. Well I forgot we hadn’t seen a signal yet. So per the GCOR rules, you were initiating movement and you have to be at what’s called restricted speed until you’re leading wheels past the first governing signal, it relieves you from being at restricted speed. It’s a catchall rule. I won’t go into depth on that, but it’s one of the most important rules we have. And somehow I miss that. I’m all focused on the speed because they’re intentionally trying to distract you and man, I thought I was doing great. I’m zipping along and okay, I got this 40 mile an hour curve coming up. I’m going to set some air and get down for it. My instructor comes behind me, How you doing? So what was your last signal?” And that’s when it hit me. Wow.

Maximillian Alvarez: God-damn it.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: I just failed the simulator run. And then I still had to go through the whole thing. But that’s trying to simulate distractions coming up. You’re going along down the rail and something comes up on the radio and radio communication going on and a car coming up on a crossing that looks like they’re not going to stop. And a speed change coming up and maintenance away, workers coming up ahead and a form A speed restriction and a form B, all these overlapping distractions. They’re trying to do that. But then you come back to Pocatello and you do months and months of working as a student engineer with a qualified engineer, and you’re just back to back to back nonstop.

And also during this time, it’s a pay cut. You actually take a pay cut while you’re doing the training. But during this time, I remember losing a lot of sleep because I would constantly have dreams that there’s a red signal coming up and I’m trying to find the brakes and I can’t find them in bed and it’s getting closer and closer. It was enough to give you nightmares during engineer training. Yeah, that’s how-

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man, I’m breaking out into a cold sweat just thinking about this, and I think a number of things jump out. One, just like this is also what we were saying during the high stakes contract dispute last year, and I guess just a reminder for everyone, by the time we were talking about that contract dispute, the contract was already three years out of date. This was three years into the negotiations, but because of all the provisions within the Railway Labor Act and all the funky conditions around bargaining between the rail unions and rail carriers, we’re not going to go into all that. Again, you guys can go back and check out our past interviews to get more up to date on that but because of all that weirdness, this kind of contract dispute had been going on for a long time. The more that I would talk to workers like yourself, the more that it was just baffling to me that people like you could go through that much training and that you could be expected to hold within yourself on any given day.

That much knowledge and sort of scenarios upon scenarios for how to act in a situation while still staying in compliance with federal regulations, with company rules, with the size of the train you got, the kind of train you got, the crew that you got. It kind of reminded me of when two homies, who we’ve had on the show before as well, the great Zack Pattin and Skiff from the Longshore workers in Tacoma. When Zack and Skiff were on the show, they were describing to me this kind of practice that they have in the Tacoma port that’s kind of particular to them, where they load these ships that are docking there and are on their way to Alaska. And so you got these guys in forklifts, a small army of forklifts, zipping up and down these ramps and in these tight quarters and stacking it as tightly as you can. And just hearing them describe it was anxiety producing for me because I was like, I don’t know how you act in that situation. I would be so terrified by what could go wrong that I would end up causing an accident. Because you almost have to have that sort of state of flow, you have to be so intimately connected to that machinery and so well versed in that knowledge that it becomes instinctual and you’re able to always be aware of the safety risks but not be immobilized by them. I don’t know.

I just have so much tremendous — yeah, the tremendous respect I have for you and others who are able to do that is off the charts, which is why, I guess this is the point I’m making, it was so baffling to me to hear that the railroads have been cutting their staff year after year after year, and that in fact they were trying to make that job harder for you guys by getting crews on trains that used to have five people down to two and then possibly down to one. And I was like, how the fuck does any of that make sense?

Michael Paul Lindsey II: While at the same time also running longer and longer trains that usually don’t make it across the territory in the designated time allowed. So a trip that may have taken seven hours in the past is now consistently taking 12 hours plus while you wait for another crew to come out and relieve you. I’ll touch on one thing there, Max. You mentioned about the labor dispute hitting that a little bit and how you mentioned earlier how Biden collaborated with big business to basically prevent us from strike, a work stoppage and the media talked all about a strike and the potential of a railroad strike, but actually because railroaders are not allowed to strike, it’s against the law, they can force us back to work, which in a supposedly free country just seems obscene to even discuss that.

So the language of it does not specifically refer to a strike though. It refers to a work stoppage. So being a strike from the labor side or a lockout from the railroad side, and I’m going to be one of the people that… One of the only people that has said this and that is that there was an illegal work stoppage. It did occur, but it wasn’t the employees that did it. It was companies like Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern that several days before the strike was even legal, started shutting down ports and saying, Oh, this is in anticipation of a potential strike and an orderly shutdown.” They illegally broke the law and started shutting down the US economy before the allotted date where we would be allowed to do that and no one talked about it.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to contextualize that for listeners, because what Paul just said is really important, and you’re right, it was driving me insane on this end on the media side, hearing so many outlets that had paid no attention to this struggle until we were literally at the 11th hour in September of 2022, and we were at that moment when a rail shut down could potentially happen. To your point, and like I said, I won’t run everyone through my whole spiel on the Railway Labor Act and all the stages that we had to clear in order for a strike or a lockout to become legal like Paul said. But because labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act, they’re governed by the Railway Labor Act, which was passed in the 1920s with the explicit purpose of preventing the kind of railroad strike that this country had seen in the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Railroad workers like Paul and his ancestors in the industry, they showed corporate America the business class and their lackeys in DC and state houses across the country.

They showed how much power workers on the railroads had to bring the economy to its knees, and they exerted that power multiple times, which is why the ruling business and political establishment was like, all right, we need to create this whole other separate set of rules, which became the Railway Labor Act essentially making it next to impossible for workers in this industry and other affiliated industries that are vital to our national security supply chain, yada, yada, yada. We need to make it as hard as possible for work stoppages to happen here. So that’s why we went through all those fucking stages last year. There were negotiations that reached an impasse. There was a federal mediator who came in when they declared an impasse that started a 30-day cooling off. Biden had the opportunity in that period to create a presidential emergency board to review the contract dispute from both sides, labor and management.

They offered their recommendations, they put together a report in late August that triggered another 30 day cooling off period during which the unions and the carriers would have an opportunity to say whether or not they could agree to that report as the framework for a new contract. So what Paul was just talking about is in September when we were reaching the end of that 30 day cooling off period after the PEB, the Presidential Emergency Board had released its official report and its recommendations for the framework for a new contract. The rail carriers immediately said, Yeah, that sounds good to us.” Right? So that should tell you right there why it was such a bad report or what was missing from it. The rail unions not so much. There was a lot of internal debate. A couple of the unions said that they would accept it as the framework for a new contract. Others did not.

All the while the clock was ticking down to late September when after the end of that 30 day cooling off, that is like the last stage in the railway Labor Act. At which point now a lockout initiated by the rail carriers or a strike initiated by any one of the unions could effectively and legally happen. And so the railroad unions and the workers, like Paul was saying, they had to sit and wait. They couldn’t start a strike before that 30-day deadline was exhausted. They would get fired. There’s a whole lot of consequences if labor jumps the gun and starts a work stoppage before the railway Labor Act says that they can. And yet the rail carriers, a week before that 30-day deadline was up, started doing slowdowns, started Embargoing Freight, started closing down lines. They started holding the rest of the economy hostage by violating the Railway Labor Act and no one in the media was calling them on it, and it was insane.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: They should have been criminally held liable for that because they would’ve held us criminally liable had we started a strike early.

A train derails in Michigan with several cars veering off track in Van Buren Township, in Michigan, United States on February 18, 2023. The train was operated by Norfolk Southern, the same company operating the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio weeks before. Nick Hagen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, again, it just showed how stacked the deck is here and just in terms of the business side’s willingness to flout the law because they know they can get away with it. But also, like I said before, the fact that you guys were going up against a corporate media ecosystem that is so deeply entrenched in business friendly ideology, anti-worker ideology. I mean, it was just so infuriating to me that you and your fellow worker whistleblowers had to fight so hard just to get a countervailing perspective in there and to even make points like these because the pundits didn’t know that shit. They had no idea what they were talking about. It took me and Mel Buer a whole year of interviewing workers to gain the basic level of competency that we had to try to explain it to other people. And so I could go on all day about this, but I want to hook that into our final round in this conversation.

I want to make sure we give ample time to talk about the situation that you are in now and what people can do to support you. But this is important because in many ways the situation you’re in now is linked to the whistleblowing that you were doing during that time when we were approaching a potential rail shutdown. And you were, like I said, posting on your TikTok. You were doing interviews, you’ve written op-eds for industry magazines like Railway Age, and you’ve been, I think, a really fair critic of the industry. But it’s always been clear from your writing, from your speaking, how much you love the industry, how much you care about your fellow workers and their ability to do the job that you were hired to do, the potential that you know the railroads have and also the danger that corporate Wall Street led practices posed to the rest of the country.

So I wanted to ask if you just say a little bit about that side of things like when we were in year three, the contract dispute, some people like myself, Mel, In These Times, other outlets, people are starting to get involved. So what was going through your mind in terms of seeing where the industry was, seeing how little people outside of the industry understood that and what you felt compelled to do to try to raise people’s awareness about that, right? I mean, I guess the final thing I’ll say there then I’ll shut up, is just from my side, I will tell people listening to this, it was not easy to get connected with railroad workers like Paul. It took a lot of work because initially the first story I reported on was in late January of 2022 when I had learned that BNSF railway workers, this was specifically the conductors and engineers were prepared to go on strike against BNSF railway over the institution of a new draconian attendance policy called Hi-Viz, and the district court judge blocked workers from striking, allowed the policy to go into effect.

So that was kind of a prelude to what we would see happen with Biden and Congress and so on and so forth. So I tried to connect with people at that point, and all I heard from workers was like, I’ll talk to you off the record, but you cannot use my name. For the love of God please don’t tell anyone that you spoke to me because I will get fired. So right off the bat, it was very clear to me. It was like this is an industry that is so tightly controlled from the top down, that the rank and file voices are being actively silenced and that the public is not aware of the danger it is in because of that regime of silencing. And those are the conditions under which Paul himself took a really big risk and like I said, wrote op-eds gave public interviews posted on his TikTok. So that’s the context here. Now, Paul, take it away from there and talk us through your own sort of process for why you felt you had to blow the whistle on what you were seeing and what that entailed, what you felt the public needed to know.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Yes. Well, it’s been very difficult to convey the message to a lot of people because the media, certain sides of the media and then also the railroads themselves and just, I would say this general gaslighting that workers get around the country, they’ve convinced people that it’s totally cool to just criticize each other and bring each other down like, Oh, you’re already overpaid as is.” And try to get much empathy from people that just do not understand the context of what we’re talking about. So it’s hard to break past that brick wall of what’s going on. And like you said, talking with railroad workers that are willing to talk is very hard because these are the same industries. These are the same companies that oppressed racial groups that willingly were totally cool with paying the Chinese less and letting them die on the job, getting blown up in tunnels and on rock faces.

This is the same industry that just a few short decades ago was totally cool with preventing women and preventing African-Americans from getting promoted and keeping African-Americans in low paid quarter and waiter positions and not letting them promote. I mean, these are the same companies that did this, and they are totally cool with silencing you and oppressing you and firing you or worse. I mean, it’s kind of funny. I was making all these TikTok videos and everything, and one of my coworkers said, Hey, when something happens to you, I’m going to make a bunch of money. I’m going to sell t-shirts that say that Michael Paul didn’t kill himself.” In relation, implying that the railroad’s going to off me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus man.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: This is the mentality of these railroads that are perfectly with intimidating people that would dare to speak out against what they’re doing, anyone that would dare speak out against their business practices or anything else. And this isn’t the first time that I spoke out against them. Let me give you an example. This was about five years ago. It was before anyone started talking about what’s been going on with the bailouts and the share buybacks and everything else. If you go back about five years ago, the executive leadership at Union Pacific had a town hall meeting in Pocatello at the depot and Lance Fritz, the CEO, and at the time Rob Knight, the CFO, they were all there and in front of everyone I asked him why they were feeling it necessary to deplete our resources and to not invest in the railroad’s future growth and to destroy our capital by buying back their own shares to such an extent.

And they basically gave me the most polite screw you I’ve ever gotten in my life and talked down to me like I’m stupid, but I have a business degree. I’m not stupid. I know what share buybacks are and I know how they’re financing their share buybacks. I called them out about it back then, but now people are starting, it’s hitting the mainstream. People are talking about it. And so I’ve focused on the Wall Street issue with the railroads and how they own just so many companies in this country, BlackRock and Vanguard and State Street that try to squeeze every penny out of them regardless of which industry it is and whether it even survives long-term.

But train length and the amount of staff on hand to service these trains was definitely a huge factor. So the railroads act like running longer and longer trains is just as safe as running shorter trains, but what it’s actually doing a lot of times is full blocking communities, blocking crossings, and between that tied with cutting locomotive maintenance staff and also cutting car maintenance staff, it’s creating a lot of stress on the supervisors and the employees in those roles. So if let’s say a 6,000-foot train comes into the terminal, it’s pretty easy to comply with federal law and service that train and ensure that it’s safe to go to get it out of town and to spend a proper amount of time per each car. But if that’s a 14,000-foot train like they like running and they’ve cut the car staff down and they don’t have as many, then it is very, very tempting to rush through that train and get it done and get it out of the terminal and send it onto the next, because God, I’m going to get my ass chewed if I don’t get this train out of here.

That is a very real human action result of forcing these 14,000 foot trains through. Also, it feels like they’re conducting unregulated experimentation on the public because these trains do break down more. They do run over the track slower. They run over any territory slower. And imagine if you have a 10-mile section of track and there’s a 40 mile an hour curve at both ends of this 10 mile section, right? But you have a 14,000-foot train, almost three miles long, and your train’s good for 60, but you have 40 mile an hour curves on both ends of this 10 mile section. You cannot pick it up to 60 until your very last car comes out of that 40 mile an hour curve, which is almost three miles. Then it’s going to take a few miles to get back up to 60 again, and then you’re going to have to slow back down to 40 again.

So you might as well just go about 43, 44 miles an hour through that whole section because by the time you get out of that 40 mile an hour section, you’re almost up to another one. So the trains are moving slower, people’s goods are moving slower across the system, and it’s an unregulated experiment on the economy because people need their goods. We’re seeing high inflation and the railroads do play a part. They’ve farmed out their maintenance. So something that was going on with the East Palestine thing, and this was something that they specifically brought a TikTok video that I made. They magically decided to fire me right as East Palestine was coming along because I released a video on East Palestine. That was one of five videos they used in their investigation of TikTok videos, videos that I’d made, specifically talking about East Palestine.

I feel like they really wanted to just silence me because East Palestine was making the entire industry look bad, and I made a video about how these hot box detectors are being silenced. So a hot box detector is a detector in the track every 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles, and as the train goes by, it measures the temperature on the bearings and determines whether the bearing is overheating, and it always sends a message over the radio at the end of the train after it goes by, gives a milepost, no defects, usually an actual count, a speed, and sometimes the ambient temperature outside, and it gives that information. So the crew is constantly aware of what’s going on. Well, in the last few years they’ve been silencing these messages and they’re not regular, these detectors, I thought that maybe there were federal rules governing these detectors, just like there’s federal standards on everything.

But somehow what has come out with this East Palestine thing, the biggest thing that they’re wanting everyone to shut up about is that hot box detectors do not have a fixed standard. There’s no standard how far apart they need to be. There’s no standard as to how they need to be calibrated. There was no fixed standard. So it was people like me talking about this that got people really looking into that and wanting to talk about why the hot box detectors were being silenced. Well, what they were doing is they were silencing these detectors and if say an alarm for a high temperature bearing went off, it would go to Omaha, like where the headquarters UP is or whatever the headquarters is on the other railroads, it would go to their headquarters, to their bearing desk. Someone would review it and determine whether it was worthwhile to report it to the actual crew. I mean, that would be like being on a plane and they say there’s an engine alarm that goes off and it goes to the airline headquarters and they determine whether they need to tell the pilots about it. It’s ridiculous.

For the love of God please don’t tell anyone that you spoke to me because I will get fired.

Maximillian Alvarez: It is, and I’m so glad that you brought this up, right, because this was also news to me that I learned by watching the Surface Transportation Board hearings on East Palestine that just happened. I was watching Jason Cox, the national rep for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen on CSX and Norfolk Southern, give his testimony saying what you’re saying, and then the industry or the Norfolk Southern representative effectively revealing that these hotbox detectors are not federally regulated. It’s the railroad itself that determines what its standards are for reporting. I mean, that was a real big bombshell, and it’s a really important side to the story. But what I want to impress upon people is that the video, the TikTok video that Paul is talking about, the points that he’s making about those hotbox detectors and why the public needs to know about them again at these official federal hearings that have just happened in the past month where Norfolk Southern has admitted to these, that’s the same shit that Paul was saying in the TikTok that he has now been fired for. So it’s like—

Michael Paul Lindsey II: They use that TikTok in their formal hearing—

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, you know what, let’s pause real quick. Let’s tee up that TikTok just so everyone listening knows exactly what we’re talking about. So we’re going to play that clip and then we’ll hop back here in two minutes.

Speaker 1: This is a hot box detector. It’s a device that inspects train axles for overheated bearings like the one that caused the East Palestine derailment. As a train passes over one of these devices, it scans each bearing and gives the crew an exit message over the radio like this

Speaker 2: UP detector milepost 6.3, no defects, total axle 619, temperature 25 degrees detector out.

Speaker 1: The no defects message ensures the crew that all temperature readings are normal. Those detectors are usually placed about every 15 or 20 miles along the route. But over the last couple of years, these monopoly railroads have shut off the alert messages on much of the system crews used to be alerted over the radio when a detector found a hot bearing. Now, crews are being kept in the dark as to the true status. Now, when a detector senses a rising bearing temperature, an alert is sent to the railroading dispatch center, which is hundreds of miles away and not to the crew. A manager or other useless middleman reviews the message, but usually allows the train to proceed. Now, if the bearing temperature continues to rise on future detectors, the crew’s finally alerted that a bearing is trending hot and the crew now knows to stop and inspect their train.

Meanwhile, the train has traveled who knows how many miles since the first detector saw the problem. This practice has stripped away the ability to take corrective action by the crew, keeping trains with problems moving and surely has saved the railroads money to buy back more of their own shares. But at East Palestine, their luck gambling with public safety seems to have run out. This is the route the train was following in the miles prior to the derailment. At Salem, a video caught the train passing as fire engulfed the wheel bearing. Also, at Salem, a hot box detector inspected the bearings on the train. The crew was not alerted to any problem. Now had the detector given an exit message alerting the crew to the presence of a hot bearing, they would’ve stopped the train immediately and inspected. Instead, the unaware crew continued on east to East Palestine where the next detector was located.

But as we all know, by this time, it was too late for the crew to take corrective action and the bearing failed, derailing the train and causing an environmental disaster along a river, which provides 10% of Americans drinking water. Why was the detector at Salem not working correctly to alert the crew? Why are the railroads allowed to silence safety devices? Logically, there are only two scenarios which could have played out. Either one, the detector at Salem had maintenance problems and was not working, in which case they need to be held liable for gross negligence. Or two, the detector worked just fine, but the hot bearing message went to the dispatching center in Atlanta instead of the crew and the train continued on, in which case the company needs to be held liable for gross negligence. It’s time that Americans asked why giant unaccountable monopolies are allowed to own neglect and dominate our vital rail infrastructure while buying back billions of dollars of their own shares every year. Railroad workers have warned of the cuts to maintenance, longer trains and utter contempt these companies hold for the general public. East Palestine will happen again if we continue to allow these companies to be unaccountable.

Maximillian Alvarez: Again, you guys can see why the rail carriers are so focused on silencing people like Paul, why they are so intent on creating this culture of fear among its workers. That makes it so difficult for media makers and journalists like myself to connect with their workers to get these kinds of stories and to learn about the real issues going on in this industry and how those issues endanger workers, how they hurt the economy, and how they put us citizens and our communities at hazard, right? I mean, if the public knows about these things, then we’re going to start rightfully demanding that this industry be more tightly regulated, that the business practices of the major rail carriers be more tightly regulated, or even as we’ve talked about over at the Real News, even perhaps like we should take the railroads into public ownership.

This is a proposal that Railroad Workers United has been pushing for, and the rail carriers who are raking in record profits, of course, they don’t want that. So they’re going to do everything that they can to sort of create that culture and that environment in which this vital information does not make its way out to the public. And anyone like Paul who puts their neck out there to try to get that information to the public is going to face swift and severe repercussions for that. And I really want to stress that in this country we have an important tradition of whistleblowing. We associate that tradition with great patriots like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, W Mark Felt AKA Deep Throat, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange. I mean, people who brought information to the public that the public needed to know. But we tend to think of that in terms of exposing government lies. And that’s the only realm in which whistleblowing is applicable. No. There are tons of statutes protecting workers under whistleblowing provisions. Workers who take that step to alert authorities, the media about safety issues, about violations that are going unreported. Again, whistleblower protections mean that information that the public has a right to know and needs to know that is being actively suppressed, that people who are trying to get that information out are being retaliated against. We have all of these whistleblower provisions to try to protect from those things.

But you can very much be a whistleblower in an industry like the railroads. If you are a rank and file worker or even a manager, in many ways you could call Chris Smalls a whistleblower. He led a walkout at that Amazon warehouse in Queens over the company’s COVID safety protocols. That is blowing the whistle. That is saying to your coworkers and to the public, something is going on here that is in violation of the law, that is in violation of basic laws of civilization and humanity, and people need to know about it. That is what we’re talking about here. And this is the kind of stuff that Paul was bravely and rightly and necessarily bringing to public view. But when the public started turning its eye to the railroads, especially after East Palestine, the carriers, they wanted to stamp that out however they possibly could. And here we are now with Paul, 17 years on the railroad being ended because of that service that he has done to us and to this country.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: And it’s not just me. Just so you know, I’ve been in contact with others. This is pure brute force intimidation. There have been people that have had my videos or other videos that people have made on the railroads on their phone or had been messaged by someone else and the railroad found out about it and fired them permanently for just having this content.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus. You kidding me? I mean, that is insane.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Yeah. And like you said, everyone should have the right to be able to call out this unethical behavior. Behavior from these companies that violates basic societal norms, safety. But the problem is these whistleblower laws were really written in an age prior to social media. And social media has become the primary form of news exchange. And so, my goal has always been to create legislative change in the railroad industry. Up to including, like you mentioned, public ownership, which is definitely a misunderstood issue, but legislative change. And the only way to get legislative change is to alert the public so that they can alert their lawmakers to make legislative change. And in past generations, that would’ve been through rallies or the newspaper or something, but that era is gone. The way people do that now is via social media. And so the laws need to reflect that social media is protected speech.

And these companies will argue that, oh, we’re a private company. The first amendment that doesn’t apply to private companies. Well, then quit taking federal funding. As long as you guys take federal paycheck protection loans and preferential fed loans and any assistance because you don’t want to maintain your infrastructure yourself. So you want to take federal or state loans or grants or anything, stop sucking on the tit of government and stand on your own two feet. And don’t be too big to fail if you want to be separate. Otherwise, you’re essentially a wing of the government if you’re going to take money from the government. And yes, I have first amendment rights to talk out against you. At least that’s my thoughts.

Maximillian Alvarez: Fucking Amen. Yeah, I’d say preach, man. I think that’s exactly right. And I know that you made a really great point back in September when we were talking about the potential rail shutdown, and we were talking about the presidential emergency board report from August and how the rail carriers infamously said that workers like yourself bore none of the risk of the rail industry and thus were entitled to none of the rewards. And you rightly pointed out, you’re like, oh, so all that money you guys got from Trump’s tax cuts, was that risk or reward, right? Was that you taking a risk?

I feel like they really wanted to just silence me because East Palestine was making the entire industry look bad.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Yeah. Was that risk or was that investment? I’m confused. Yeah. Their quote was as follows: The carriers maintained that it was their risk and investment that resulted in their profits and not any contribution by labor.” And that’s just amazing, because labor are the ones that contribute their finite lives and existence on this planet and risk their safety and their times away from their family and children and everything else. And meanwhile, we’re the ones that get taxed the most. And there were certain people that had major disagreements with this union contract, but I had one thing in particular that really, really rubs me the wrong way. And I’ve mentioned it a bunch. For some reason, it just hasn’t stuck with the union. Even though I talked to the president of the BLE, Dennis Pierce, back when he was the president and everything else, the union has not been on our side on this issue.

And that is taxation on meals when you travel out of town. If you’re out of town a couple of hundred days a year traveling, you bear an immense expense on having to eat out because you don’t have the choice. And people could say, Oh, well just bring your lunch.” What are you going to bring a cold lunch 200 days a year? What kind of life is that? Sometimes you eat away from home and it costs a lot more money. It’s a lot more expensive than eating at home. So it used to be that you could write off that expense at the end of the year, but the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act took that ability away when they changed the way that all that is calculated. So now railroaders can’t really write that off anymore. So they lost their biggest tax deduction. And the railroads do not pay a proper daily per diems.

The IRS says, I believe it’s $60 a day now, when you travel out of town is the portion of your pay that is to be paid to you tax-free as a reimbursement where you don’t pay taxes on it. Instead, we get $12 because it hasn’t gone up since the nineties. $12 to be gone for two days. And that affects your adjusted gross income. It results in higher taxation. Meanwhile, those companies and billionaires alike, don’t pay hardly anything in taxes. Because everything’s written off as a write-off. Because if you’re a business, you can write off everything in the world, but workers don’t get that ability. So that’s what really, really bothers me. And I do intimately understand how that’s calculated. I’ve run little businesses of my own. I have a business degree, I understand the taxes, and I understand how much railroaders are getting screwed. And it doesn’t just apply to railroaders, it applies to any company that doesn’t pay a proper per diem for their workers.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, I think that’s again, really powerfully put and spot on, man. I mean, just yet another example of how workers like yourself are bearing the costs of this industry. And the executives and shareholders are reaping all the rewards, and they still have the gall to tell Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board that you guys are taking none of the risk, right? And thus, you deserve none of the shares of their record profits. It’s just sickening, frankly. And I know I can’t keep you much longer, and I want to round the final turn here. I mean, we got so much more to talk about, but I just wanted to really put in a plea, everyone listening, right? We’re going to link to other past interviews that Paul and I have done, pieces that he’s written. We’re going to link to his TikTok. Please get these out there as much as you can. Make sure people know about, A, what Paul has been trying to make the public aware of in terms of the rail industry and its destructive business practices, and what that is doing to the workers, to the infrastructure, and to our communities.

So please, please help us get the word out about that. But also, please help us get the word out about Paul being retaliated against and fired from all three times. So this is what we’re going to end talking about. We’re not going to be able to ask Paul about anything regarding pending litigation, so please just bear with us there. And, of course, with the way that the law in this country moves so slowly and how much it favors the bosses already, we got to be careful and say, allegedly in retaliation for his whistleblowing. But to me, everything that we are seeing and hearing about, and given Paul’s existing record on the railroads, it seems pretty damn obvious to me that he was targeted and retaliated against and fired for his whistleblowing and should have the same whistleblower protections that this country claims that we have. And so Paul, I guess take us around the final term, man. Tell us about what has happened with these firings, how you are doing, and what people can do to stand in solidarity with you.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Okay. Well, yeah, February 24th was my last workday, and I’ve always had really good rapport with my local managers, get along fine with them and everything. And they personally, I don’t think personally wanted anything to do with this. But on that day, after working a whole shift and all, I came into the yard office and they said, Well, yeah, Omaha called and we’re supposed to escort you off the property.” That was my last workday. And it’s amazing the time period on it, because it’s right when the media is just exploding over East Palestine. And then also another derailment that had happened in Southern California where an excessive tonnage train that had broken in half got away and derailed at 145 miles an hour. And so at some point, someone in Omaha decided to pull the pin and make the call and silence me on that.

And they held five of my TikTok videos, held a formal investigation over my videos, played them, I think it’s funny, I also think it’s kind of hilarious that off the record, the UP managers agreed with me on it, and they were quite impressed with the amount of views that, but of course they couldn’t put that on the record for it. But yeah, they held three formal investigations. So well, one on that. So that’s where it gets really interesting. So remember how I said this is an industry that has people in the background that makes calls and they will smear and destroy the reputation and credibility of anyone that they see standing up against them. So it’s bad enough they held an investigation, a formal hearing on this, that probably would’ve been overturned by the arbitrator when they looked at it.

Well, they want to multiply that times three to see if an arbitrator will overturn it three times. Because I referred to myself in the investigation just as I think any worker right now would feel toward these corrupt billionaire employers. And that is I referred to myself as feeling like a slave to my work, to my industry. And they didn’t like that. And so they held another formal investigation a few weeks later to fire me again for saying that I used a racial slur to talk about myself when I was referring to myself as being a slave to their company.

Maximillian Alvarez: Fuck off man.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: And then they held a third one that day that I didn’t even know was going on until afterwards. We went straight into another formal hearing so that they could bring one more TikTok video that I’d posted into the mix. This time about the SEMA derailment and the train, leaving the rails doing 140 miles an hour. So they hold three separate investigations. One for the original first five TikTok videos. The next for me calling myself a slave to them, and the next for another TikTok video so that they can ensure that I’m silenced and can never be brought back to work by an arbitrator, is what they’re trying to do. And it’s unprecedented and it’s unheard of in the industry. I don’t know anyone in the industry that’s dealt with the union and formal investigations that has ever seen someone investigated three times in regard to the same exact charge.

Maximillian Alvarez:

I’m like, I’m at a loss for words with that. That is insane to me. And I think, yeah-

Michael Paul Lindsey II: They blackballed me from the industry too there, Max. I’ve applied to multiple positions on Amtrak since then as a qualified engineer with a lot of good years of service. And I’m not getting any response from anybody because they blackballed me by essentially saying that, hey, if you look at my service record now, and now it shows that apparently I use racial slurs for referring to calling myself a slave.

Maximillian Alvarez: I don’t know what part to be more angry about. But obviously that part I’m very angry about. Because I mean, this is just so cynical and so diabolical, when you are talking about a worker who has given 17 years of their life to this industry, who knows their job inside and out, who takes that work incredibly seriously, and is raising the alarm about serious issues within that industry that are endangering workers, endangering communities, and ultimately hurting the economy and the industry itself. So you have that situation, amidst the kind of other dynamics we’ve talked about in the industry that have led this industry to pile so much work onto so few workers to treat workers like crap, to constantly push people to be on call, to devote every waking hour of their lives to this industry, so on and so forth.

Yeah. I can tell you firsthand, as someone who’s interviewed many railroad workers, that they have also described to me that they feel like slaves to this industry. Because how else would you describe it when you are a conductor, an engineer working under these oppressive draconian attendance policies that mean that you have to be on call 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days out of the year, you can’t plan your life. You don’t have paid sick days, although some may now finally be getting a few paid sick days.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: That didn’t apply to conductors and engineers, by the way.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, there you go. So then you’re still fucked. So if you don’t have the ability to take paid sick days, you were literally at the beck and call of your employer. If you miss those calls, you are fired. You lose your paycheck, you lose all your accrued benefits, so on and so forth. So yeah, I wholeheartedly understand it when you and other workers say you feel like slaves in this industry because that is the position you’ve been put in. And then for the company to turn around and say, well, we’re going to fire you for saying that. Because by calling yourself a slave, that’s a racial slur. And then in turn, for you to be blackballed from the industry because you have this company written note on your record saying that allegedly, you know, have a history of, or you were fired for racist comment, pardon my French, but that is fucking bullshit.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: It is. And this is the same industry, I’ll say again, that literally oppressed black people by holding them in low paying porters and waiter positions, until not that long ago, preventing them from being conductors and engineers. I mean, this company is the most morally bankrupt company in the world. And now they want to pretend that they have some sort of moral high ground to stand on. It’s just amazing. Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I mean, it’s funny you mention that or not so funny. But if people go back to our own show catalog, two months ago. I interviewed Brian Mack, a black conductor for CSX, who was also fired under very dubious circumstances that feel, to me, pretty racially motivated. And Brian himself talked about what it was like to be a second generation black railroader. You can hear him describe his dad’s experience, trying to make a career amidst that kind of racist regime that Paul was just describing. That when he says, that wasn’t too long ago. You can hear that in the interview that we did with Brian Mack just a couple of months ago. And again, I know we got to wrap this up. I know I got to let you go. But it’s just, again, this is what we’re dealing with here. To not only not address the serious issues that Paul was communicating when he says, I feel like a slave to this industry.”

Instead of addressing the issues that are leading your workers to feel that way, you fire them and smear them in this way to try to send a message to anyone else who dares speak out. That is ultimately what we’re talking about here. That is why it’s so important for all of us to not let them get away with this, not let them push this under the rug, not let these issues just fade from our memory until the next East Palestine or Lac-Mégantic happens. I am begging people to-

Michael Paul Lindsey II: It’s going to happen.

Maximillian Alvarez: And it’s going to happen. It’s not like derailments just stopped after East Palestine. We just haven’t had one as catastrophic since then.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: We just had that derailment in Montana. Did you see the bridge collapse?

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Yeah, I did.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: So that is our infrastructure. That is our infrastructure that money doesn’t go back into that. Money goes back into share buybacks. It doesn’t go into maintaining stuff like that. And I can tell you personally, and I hope the railroad is listening to this, but when I was down at my dad’s recently, he lives right next to a bridge along the line in California that Amtrak uses every single day. And the pilings under that bridge are disgusting and falling apart. And it’s probably in just as bad a condition as that bridge in Montana.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus, man. Yeah, this is a crisis. That kind of destruction of the railroads took years of neglect and greedy practices. And it’s not like we can just turn a switch and fix them. There are things we can do now. Biden and Congress could make those trains half the size tomorrow, if they were really adamant about intervening here. There are immediate things you can do while making long-term investments to improve upon the issues that Paul and I have been talking about for nearly the past two hours. But again, it’s going to take that will, it’s going to take all of us forcing our elected officials to make it a priority, forcing the media to continue to cover it. And yes, speaking out for those who can’t, speaking up and letting companies like Union Pacific know what you think about how they’re treating their workers and how they’re treating whistleblowers like Paul.

Please, do whatever you can to spread this Paul’s story, to hold these companies accountable and to do whatever you can to make this better, because it’s not going to get better on its own. And so on that final note, Paul, again, I wanted to thank you so much for sharing all of this. And again, I’m so sorry that you were going through all of this bullshit, and I just wanted to ask one final question by way of rounding out how you’re doing and what people out there can do to support you as you go through this.

Michael Paul Lindsey II: Personally, I’m doing pretty well. A few years ago, I acknowledged that I can’t be a hundred percent reliant on the railroad. So I tried to manage my finances and everything to where they’re not hurting me. And I’ve been traveling around and finally trying to work on my health and just doing some things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am concerned about my health insurance eventually running out. I have an extension program where it goes on for a bit, but it’ll eventually run out, which is another one of those. It goes back to my comment on why I felt that I was a slave of the railroad. So just a little reminder to everyone, where we live in a country where if you’re employed by one of these big companies that likes to engage in dubious activity and you say anything about them, they can literally kill you.

I mean, I’ve got obstructive sleep apnea from my time at the railroad, and I’m on blood pressure medication now, and they’re taking my health insurance away. So all because I decided to speak out against them, that would definitely be another issue that I know, Max, you’ve probably covered the issue of health insurance in this country, but in the meantime, that’s not quite there yet. So I’m doing okay and traveling around. But I think that everyone that wants to, they need to stay engaged in what’s going on here.

And it relates to the TikTok thing. Don’t allow people to talk about how TikTok needs to be banned. Don’t allow your mind to believe this crap that they’re trying to put out there. People get their news, their unbiased news from passionate creators on outlets like TikTok. And banning TikTok is a way that they can shut down that information stream. And keep following people that are having the nerve and braveness to stand up and make content about these issues. And don’t forget about it, because it’s going to affect every one of us. But especially with whistleblowing, it doesn’t matter what the industry, this potentially could result in some sort of jurisprudence that is used in the future for generations to come. That states that social media is a form of free speech.

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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.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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