Challenging the Industrial Narrative

Railroad workers are increasingly rejecting the old "jobs versus environment" story.

Railroad workers in Decatur, AL circa 1915.

Interview by
Trish Kahle

On July 6, 2013, the air brakes failed on an unmanned, seventy-four-car train carrying Bakken crude oil, sending the train cascading into the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, where it derailed and exploded. Forty-seven people were killed, and nearly half of the downtown was destroyed in the initial blast. In total, twenty-six thousand gallons of oil spilled into the nearby Chaudière River, and soil around the town was toxic to depths of several feet.

The catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic proved to be only the first in a series of high-profile explosions. Last year, there were thirty-eight derailments across the United States and Canada that caused blasts or tank ruptures. With scenes of toxic black smoke billowing above the nation’s grasslands and residents fleeing in terror, the vehicles at the center of the lethal phenomenon were given a new name: “bomb trains.

Yet rarely did the workers conducting and maintaining the North American rail system enter the conversation. Railroad Workers United (RWU) — a solidarity organization for railroaders across the industry’s dozen or so unions — saw an opportunity to fight for safer working conditions and build alliances with a public that fears further derailments, deaths, and ecological devastation.

One early result of that effort came last month, when the RWU brought railroad workers, environmentalists, and other labor and community activists together for two conferences — one in Richmond, California, the other in Olympia, Washington — to discuss the intersection of labor and environmental justice issues.

The conferences, as organizers readily noted, weren’t necessarily breaking new ground. They drew inspiration from earlier labor-environmental coalitions, which have a rich if overlooked history, particularly in heavy industry.

But even with the guidance the past can provide, workers and environmentalists must live in the present, where a ravaged labor movement has struggled even to win defensive battles and the environmental movement debates its strategy and future. Forging solidarity across traditional divides will be crucial in revivifying the labor movement and fighting climate change.

To that end, I recently interviewed three conference participants — RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow; Sierra Club community organizer Ratha Lai; and Ross Grooters, an Iowa-based locomotive engineer, environmentalist, and RWU member — about the state of the labor-environmental alliance, the working conditions on the nation’s railroads, and their vision for the future. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Trish Kahle

Why organize this conference now?

Ron Kaminkow

The driving motivation is because railroad worker issues are something that need to come before the general public, and there are numerous environmental organizations, citizens groups around the country, that are up in arms about the situation with oil trains’ derailments and explosions.

And so our idea is to build a labor-community alliance around the issues of rail safety. Because our issues transcend oil trains. We have issues that transcend toxic chemicals and hazardous materials that we haul. For example, chronic crew fatigue is a fact of life for most trainmen and engineers who work on the railroad in the United States and Canada. This leads to accidents and train wrecks. The rail carriers of course will never admit that crew fatigue is a problem, but we know it is.

In the interest of their stockholders and Wall Street, the rail carriers keep it trimmed to the bare bone. They don’t want to have any more trainmen or engineers on the payroll — or for that matter, track workers on the payroll — than they absolutely have to at minimum. And so all of this contributes to overwork, lack of time off, harsh attendance policies, and so forth, all of which leads to chronic crew fatigue.

In the face of this, the rail carriers are intent on running all these trains, including oil trains and other hazardous materials trains, with a single employee. This is a fight that Railroad Workers United has been engaged in for almost a decade: to stop them and maintain a minimum of two employees on every job.

And meanwhile, it gives us the opportunity to offer our members the opportunity to be educated about the environmental movement, about environmental issues, and to come to the understanding that while we may not agree with the Sierra Club or Greenpeace or Forest Ethics on every single issue, there is definitely common ground, from which we can form this alliance.

Let’s face it: it’s large corporations, big business, that are largely running this country, and the rest of us are all too often fighting each other. The slogan “jobs or the environment” is one that we hear all too often. Well, we would like to rearrange that slogan and say “jobs and the environment.”

In a sane economy, one that’s based on human needs rather than private profit, we would be able to have both a safe and healthy environment and good-paying, union jobs for all. So that’s basically where we’re coming from at this point in time in trying to build this labor-community alliance.

Trish Kahle

What was accomplished at the conference in terms of alliance building, debate, and organizing? What were your biggest takeaways?

Ratha Lai

My takeaway is that the industry is coming down on everybody. The oil industry is — the way I see it — they’re in a transition. They’re dying, and they’re squeezing the last profits they hope to get out. They don’t care if that comes at the cost of their own workers, or the community, or whoever. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to get their profits.

As for the railroad workers, their issues were that they don’t want single-operator trains. The railroad industry was willing to cut in half their number of employees in order to make a profit, and I heard from a lot of the railroad workers how dangerous that was. Some of them also talked about how often trains collide with cars, and there’s a lot of accidents.

Now that the trains are carrying much more volatile crude oil that we have been seeing catching fire and exploding, there’s a lot to be concerned about, and that concern was shared among all the groups present.

Ron Kaminkow

I think these railroaders were ecstatic and excited by the prospect that finally we had some attention and people acknowledged our issues.

Most workers are very isolated. We’re isolated on the railroad for all kinds of reasons: geographically, obviously, our workplace is kinda spread out. It’s linear. It transcends hundreds of miles. It’s often in remote and rural areas. Many railroad workers actually work out of small towns, scattered across the country. Railroad workers, used to have two million of us, and now we’re down to under two hundred thousand, so we represent a much smaller percentage of the workforce than we did.

Just for railroaders to understand that we don’t have to be isolated, that we do have potential allies in the community and amongst other workers. We had a dozen oil refinery workers. Four of them traveled all the way from Los Angeles. At the Olympia conference, we had eight or nine longshoremen. And many of them were very excited to be there, and they spoke about their own situation of being under attack by the maritime operators on the West Coast.

And so for rail workers, many of whom were in attendance, this was an eye-opening experience. That not only is there a need for internal solidarity amongst engineers, conductors, track workers, and so forth — which is what RWU has been attempting to build the last ten years — but we need, and potentially can obtain, this sort of solidarity with other workers. For example the longshoremen and the [United] Steel Workers, who are representing the refinery workers.

And last but not least, there’s all these environmental organizations — and this is the real eye-opener I think for many of us — that they’re ready, willing, and able to come to our assistance, and support our issues.

So that’s from the railroad workers’ side. I think from everyone else who was in the room and particularly the representatives of the thirty-five or forty organizations, many of them environmentally oriented, that endorsed the conference . . . these people were blown away by what they heard, in terms of the chronic crew fatigue, improper track maintenance, the harsh attendance policy, and that the whistleblower law as it currently is structured does not protect railroad workers very well for reporting a workplace injury or reporting a safety hazard at work.

So I think it was an eye-opening experience for the community as well as for railroad workers.

Ross Grooters

One of the things that excited me was that it wasn’t just railroaders or RWU folks. It was really inspirational to hear the oil workers at the conference talk about their strike. It was really pretty amazing, realizing that they might not be mobile like we are, but the issues are basically the same ones that are affecting us.

It’s about safety in the workplace, it’s about how they’re pushing workers to the breaking point mentally and physically with the scheduling they do and the safety measures they don’t take. It’s pushing workers to the brink where accidents are going to happen. It might be worker fatigue. It might be equipment fatigue. Either way, it’s not good for the workers or for the community members.

Just as an environmentalist, it was great to have both parties in the room, and to see how there was a lot of common ground. And that for me was the most successful part that I brought away: that these two parties can work together on issues that benefit both mutually. It can be a win-win for both labor and environmentalists to work together.

Trish Kahle

But you also noted that you’re both an environmentalist and a railworker. So what are the conversations like outside of the conference, in your workplace or in your union?

Ross Grooters

That’s an excellent question. It varies from coworker to coworker. I’m probably on one extreme, in that I’m pretty dedicated to environmental issues and I’m pretty anti–fossil fuel extraction, whereas a lot of my coworkers might not be. But the issues that do concern them involve safety when we’re moving these hazardous materials. So it’s a good conversation to have when we’re talking about how these materials affect the safety of our work and our job, and in our communities.

A fair number — a growing number — of coworkers who can see, or at least understand, the perspective that these companies aren’t necessarily good neighbors and don’t necessarily have the interests of these communities and the state of Iowa at heart.

I think it’s easier for some coworkers to see that because the bottom line is, “How can we maximize our profits?” And if that means cutting corners on safety, we know that both railroads and fossil fuel companies are both going to be implementing as low a level of safety as possible to ensure that they can maximize profit.

So it’s a conversation that does occur in my workplace. I wouldn’t say that everyone’s on board with that point of view but I would say a growing number of people are, and it’s always a good conversation to have with coworkers.

Trish Kahle

Going back to the point Ratha brought up about collisions, how often do collisions happen?

Ron Kaminkow

Around one thousand motorists and pedestrians are killed every year by trains, and thousands more vehicle-train collisions take place where people potentially are injured or killed. So this isn’t an extremely rare occurrence. It happens, if you do the math, about two or three times a day on average, two or three lives are lost on average at grate crossings or hitting a vehicle or pedestrian.

Let’s take a scenario with a single-employee train crew. So as the operator, I would throw the train into emergency, contact the dispatcher. While I’m waiting to hear from the dispatcher and relay that information, the train is stopped, and I’m wasting valuable time because I can’t go back there until I finish talking to the dispatcher.

Now once I’m done telling the dispatcher the location and various details, I’m going to dismount and go back to the rear of the train to find out the damage. I may or may not have a handheld radio, but it may or may not be able to put me in contact with the dispatcher. So he cannot give me valuable information, and I cannot relay to him valuable information that I was to find — for example, a train car of chlorine gas that’s leaking.

Now I get to the scene of the accident and sure enough, emergency services needs to get across the tracks, but the track is blocked. So now I have to go back to the locomotive, which could be a half a mile or more away before I can even move that train, because there’s nobody up there to move it for me.

And one thing I forgot, to secure my train, by the current rules, I have to put handbrakes on the cars at the head of the train. If it’s a heavy train, and it’s on a grade, I may have to put handbrakes on all of the locomotives as well as five, ten, even fifteen of the cars, if it’s a long heavy train on a heavy grade! This could take up to a half an hour before I’m literally allowed to leave the confines of the locomotive, the area of the locomotive, to proceed back to find out the extent of the damage.

Anyway, this is just one example of how difficult and dangerous it is, not just for rail workers, but for the general public. And like I say, this isn’t just an oddball case. Last year — and I don’t know the exact numbers — thousands of train-vehicle collisions took place, so the scenario I just played out takes place on average, every day, two, three, four, five times.

Trish Kahle

What are some of the challenges facing the building of a labor-environmental alliance today?

Ron Kaminkow

Well from the history I know, we’re not inventing the wheel here. It’s been tried and developed with some degree of success in the Pacific Northwest, in the old-growth forest, I believe back in the ’80s and ’90s. That one basically ended up falling apart ultimately, as many of them do. Part of the problem is that if you’re dealing with natural resources, like coal or timber or any kind of basic extraction, that could put all sort of stretches and strains on the relationship between labor and the environment.

In the case of the railroad, I don’t see the railroad going away anytime soon. If the railroad goes away it basically means that industrial society is going away, and I just don’t see that as being on the agenda. And so railroad workers are relatively secure.

I would like to think that railroad workers can feel more of a sense of security in hanging around with environmentalists. Environmentalists can be seen, and are sure to be played up by the media and the corporations as being our enemy: “They don’t like coal! They don’t like oil! They don’t like chemicals! They don’t like basic extraction!” And what does the railroad haul? Well, it hauls a hell of a lot of all those things. And so on the surface, there’s always the potential for us to be divided, and this whole attempt we’re making can potentially go up in smoke.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think especially if environmental organizations stick to their guns and stand by us, I think in the upcoming fights on single-employee crews, crew fatigue, excessively long and heavy trains, poor track maintenance, and all the rest, if and when environmental organizations and community groups come to our aid and assistance — like they did in certain places during this last fight on single-employee crews last summer — railroad workers are going to be encouraged and inspired by their presence.

Because no one cares about us, right? The idea that we’re isolated and we’re fighting these Fortune 500 companies on our own, well, let the environmental groups prove their merit in practice, prove their salt, and stand in solidarity with us. And as a result of that, railroaders, I would like to believe, will understand — will start to understand — who their real friends and allies are. And who their enemies are.

Ratha Lai

The real challenge is challenging the industrial narrative, the propaganda that drives a wedge between workers and the community.

Something we were able to see is that when you actually bring people together, they will find common ground, and as long as [workers and community members] don’t come together, there will be this open space for industrial propaganda, false assumptions, and fears — like “hey, the environmentalists are not on our side. They want to put us out of a job.”

Something that environmentalists have been thinking critically about is with climate change impacting us already, how do we find a transition out of it that is a just transition, one that includes everybody and doesn’t exclude one segment or other of the population, that doesn’t pit workers who have to try and keep their jobs and pay the bills, against community members, who fear for their lives with these trains moving through their towns.

Trish Kahle

How do we move past the “jobs versus environment” setup? What would the industry look like if workers and the environment came first?

Ratha Lai

Right now it’s really about trying to build community awareness as much as possible and to let folks know that there is a possibility. Because we’re in a real crisis, and we really do have to act — we have to act now with love for everyone else who is here, who is on this planet. And the hard part of this is the beginning part, where we’re trying to build community awareness.

Luckily for me I’m able to live in Richmond, California, and the community here is extremely aware of the environmental impact. There’s a very progressive community, and they’re doing everything they can to mobilize on these issues.

This summer there’s going to be a bunch of workshops around building a just transition, what that looks like in Richmond: how do we engage democracy in a better way so that more of the community voices are being heard, so that their concerns are being addressed? How do we have green and decent jobs? And how do we provide a meaningful standard of living for the community?

Ross Grooters

So I guess I tend to think that the more environmental protections we have, actually the better the job situation will be. Some of the best protections we can have in the particular issue of what they’re calling “bomb trains,” or oil trains, is better track maintenance. Well, that requires more people on the job. Shorter trains is another way to prevent these trains from derailing. Well, that requires more crews to transport the crude oil.

So there are things that can be done, steps that can be taken, safety-wise, that actually put more people to work. And ultimately, my preference, as both a railroad worker and an environmentalist, is I’d prefer we not transport fossil fuels at all. I’d like to see us transition to a renewable energy economy, and I think there’s a huge amount of jobs in that. We don’t have to be transporting oil. We could be transporting solar panels, or blades for wind turbines, and turning the corner so we’re not destroying our environment for future generations.

Part of it is, as a laborer, we need to educate our coworkers and make them understand that just because there’s not oil trains doesn’t mean we won’t have jobs. And on the other side, I think when environmentalists hear about the work schedules and the kinds of things that affect our safety, it’s eye-opening for them and it makes them realize that to make these things safer for their communities, there’s common ground to fight both government and railroads to make these things much, much safer.

When it comes to advice for environmentalists: be empathetic. Most workers are simply trying to earn a living and survive. They’ll work to protect their way of living if they feel it is threatened. So take workers into account when thinking about and planning your actions. If possible, find people in labor you trust to help inform your decisions. Both labor and environmentalist could use more empathy to help find common ground.

But again, hopefully, we’re turning the corner and leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and doing that sooner rather than later. These conferences are a good start to that conversation, and we might not be where we need to be yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

So the future of railroads. Railroads are more efficient than trucks. They take trucks off the road. Eventually, I’d like to see trains that aren’t run on fossil fuels. I don’t know what that technology is or what that looks like, but I think that can be done and needs to be done.

I can see railroads being the mechanism to deliver the energy economy of the future. To transport all of these things that are going to have to be installed for us to be able to continue to produce energy. We want that to be renewable, I hope, and railroads can play a huge part in that. And eventually, I’d love to see passenger rail in this country return. I hope that it can be made efficient, and make sense for people to move from place to place by train.

So there’s a lot of ways that railroads and railroad workers can play a huge role in the future of energy production. And I’d like to see that nationalized at some point in the future so that people in communities have some control over how that works. So we can make the railroads work for all of us instead of just a few people who are making profits — board of directors, CEOs.