Posts Tagged ‘railroads’

The Railroad Rank and File Build a Base

January 23, 2011


A cartoon from the early part of the 20th century still expresses many workers' frustration when unions fail to cooperate.

Part Two of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Throughout 2005 contract negotiations, union rail workers faced concerted attack by an industry that wanted to slash the workforce to dangerous levels, decimate health care, and weaken the method of compensation for on-the-job injury. While the industry was united in the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the thirteen different craft unions representing the workforce operated independently at best, and antagonistically at worst.  The United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the largest of these unions, were also the ones that clashed most often—and with the worst outcomes for its members.

Even though the members of the BLET (which represents most engineers and some conductors) worked right alongside the members of the UTU (which represents most conductors, some engineers and members of some other crafts), the leadership of the two unions often sought to undermine each other. For example, the industry was able to implement remote control technology on very favorable terms that undercut working conditions. Many railroaders believe that if the unions had stood united, this technology could have been prevented or at least have mitigated the impact on worker safety and job security.

In the past, efforts had been made to stop the feuding and actually unite the two unions, most recently in 1998 and 2000. (more…)


Railroad Workers Today: The Industry Picks a Fight

December 30, 2010

Part One of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Railroads conjure up nostalgia for some and offer a glimpse of a promising transportation future for others. Yet the railroad industry is as cutthroat as any in the country. With its unique regulatory framework, its exemption from many labor laws, and its central role to the economic life of our continent, railroads hold tremendous power. Now, a growing group of railroad engineers, conductors, yard workers, maintenance workers, signalers, mechanics, and others employed in the rail industry are uniting to hold railroads accountable for worker and public safety. Railroad Workers United is a network of railroaders from Florida to the Yukon, and they are raising the profile of the forgotten folks who actually make it possible for a train to get from Point A to Point B. This winter I will be writing a series of posts documenting the conditions for workers on the railroads and how they are organizing to protect working conditions and the safety of themselves and the public.

In late 2004, the rail industry group National Carriers Conference Committee initiated bargaining with their workers’ unions by proposing a decimation of workplace standards and pay. They attacked health care. They concocted a scheme to reduce liability in the case of workplace injury. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, they proposed that henceforth, trains and their often hazardous cargo would be sent hurtling through cities and towns and wilderness with only one employee on board. (more…)

The Funeral Train Grows Longer

September 11, 2010

The scene of the Indiana derailment where clean-up worker Michael Bowling died.

How was work today? If you went to work for the railroads, things might not have been too good. In the last few months, workers have been electrocuted (in New Jersey), drowned (in Nebraska), crushed by heavy equipment (in Indiana), struck by moving trains (Alabama, New Jersey, Minnesota), or otherwise killed in the line of duty. Members of Railroad Workers United have been keeping track of all the rail-related fatalities since Mother’s Day, 2009, when the death of Jared Boehlke left a young widow and child. They have recorded twenty-nine fatalities. Twenty–nine men and women killed in the course of helping trains get from point A to point B. (more…)

Worker Deaths Highlight Public Safety Issue

June 3, 2010

This 112-car CSX train derailed and caused explosions in Ohio in 2007

Once again, a rail worker has been struck and killed by a locomotive.  Greg Kastner, a 63-year-old hostler for the New Jersey Transit died on Monday.  (A hostler services engines in between runs.) He is one of more than 650 workers to die on the job in the last seven months.

My blog has focused on some of the rail industry deaths in part for personal reasons. I have many good friends who work in the railroad trades and I know how the needlessly difficult working conditions endanger them. But I also focus on the railroads because they represent an enormous public safety issue.  If the railroads skimp on maintenance of track or engine or train, the public is endangered. If they push workers to the limits of exhaustion (and they do) while also short-staffing, the public is endangered. The danger lies not only in derailment, which can kill passengers or passers-by, but in the cargo itself.  In 2002, for example, 15 tankers of anhydrous ammonia were part of a train that derailed in Minot, North Dakota. As hundreds of thousands of gallons leaked out, the fluid vaporized in a toxic cloud that killed one person and hospitalized many more. In 2007, another derailment released the chemical solvent cyclohexane, which caught fire and forced an evacuation of more than 500 people near Louisville, KY. That same year, a freight train carrying hazardous materials caught fire in Ohio near an elementary school. Earlier this year, a derailment of another train carrying chemicals forced an evacuation in a 1-mile radius near Santa Fe, Texas.  These are just a few examples out of many.

My heart goes out to the family and co-workers of Greg Kastner, who was so close to retirement age. And I hope the regulators will pay attention to all these deaths, for the sake of the workforce and the sake of us all.

Worker Safety Railroaded

April 28, 2010

Today is Workers Memorial Day, a day of commemoration for the thousands of people who die from workplace injuries every year. Like the 29 miners recently killed in West Virginia, or the 11 killed in the oil rig explosion this week. And like the 5,214 people killed on the job in 2008. And the 50,000 who died from occupational illnesses. Sadly, we can add two more workers to the toll from railroad accidents in the last few days.

Melinda Carter, killed on the job, April 24, 2010.

Melinda Carter, a conductor for the CSX Railroad, was killed while switching cars in a rail yard in Chicago. Early reports indicate that she was operating the trains using remote control technology, as is increasingly required of workers. She had just bought a new home for her family, for whom she was a rock. A few days later, New York Transit worker James Knell was electrocuted by the third rail while conducting track repair in the pouring rain. He had been married for two years with his high school sweetheart, after being apart for two decades.

I’ve written before about some of the particular dangers that rail workers face, and how the nature of their work means that dangers to them also represent dangers to all of us. But today I would like to ask all of us to consider the safety conditions at our workplaces, and the safety conditions of the work others are doing for us. Take the extra step to insist your employer provide protective gear (this works better if you are in a union, but even nonunion employers are required to provide a safe workplace). If you hired some guy to trim your trees or work on your roof, insist they work safely too. Pay extra for it if you have to. And if you can make a donation to an occupational health association that fights for everyone’s rights, please do! That’s a fitting way to give  tribute to the thousands of people dying at work every year in this country.

She’s Been Working on the Railroad

January 25, 2010

First female machinist at  the Milwaukee Road Railroad.

Sue Doro on the job at the Milwaukee Road in 1976

Childhood: Milwaukee
Current Home: California
Birth Year: 1937

Many have recommended that I read Sue Doro’s gorgeous book Blue Collar Goodbyes about shop floor life on the Milwaukee Railroad in its final days. I never did until a friend suggested I interview Sue for my Leading Ladies blog series. Now I see what I was missing. She uses prose and poetry to paint a warm and honest portrait of her life as the company’s first and only female machinist. Her earlier book, Hearts, Home and Hard Hats, touches on her previous machinist gigs (including being the first female machinist in the repair department at Allis Chalmers tractor plant). Her latest book, Sugar String, is a gripping account of her childhood with a truly monstrous father who not only abused his daughter but refused to lift a finger or allow Sue to call an ambulance as her mother choked to death in the family home. Sue’s life has had more than its share of hardness, so I wondered if when I talked to her I would find her a hard woman with a hard voice. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Though she was laid up with a post-operative foot when we spoke, she was lively and warm and as eager to ask me questions as I was to ask her. She now lives in California with her husband Larry. She publishes “Pride and Paycheck” for women in the blue collar trades and is a member of the National Writers Union and Railroad Workers United.

You had the sort of childhood that doesn’t exactly breed self-esteem. Why do you think you had the confidence to go into machining when no other women were doing that?
In the beginning it was for the kids. I had no college education—most girls where I grew up did not go. Raising five kids on a clerical or retail salary wasn’t going to cut it. I was a homemaker, and I did it all. I fixed the roof with my son. I fixed the bicycles, whatever. So it wasn’t such a big jump to go into machining. When I found out the requirements for the MTDA [Manpower Training Development Act] and found out machine shop was an option, I really didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t about self-esteem, just survival. And from there it was a matter of sticking up for myself.

As for my self-esteem, that came when I ran away from my father. It took me three tries, but (more…)

Remote Control Is for Toys, Not Real Locomotives

January 7, 2010

You’ve seen locomotives, right?  Those enormous hulks of steel that haul things like people, coal, corn, and poisonous gases such as ammonia?  It turns out that the geniuses that run the railroad companies have all sorts of schemes to have them go barreling through the country with only one or even no crew person inside!  In fact, in recent years they’ve already starting instituting remote control operations (RCO) in train yards.  But don’t worry folks, the technology makes things even safer than before.  Does anyone else feel like they’ve seen this movie before?  It doesn’t end well.

It certainly didn’t for Jared Boehlke, the young conductor killed on Mother’s Day in Selkirk, New Jersey, performing RCO duties. Nor for Jody Allen Herstine, another conductor run over while moving cars with RCO in 2003. Nor for another man—a switchman—run over in Utah in 2005 while another worker moved engines using RCO. And a few days ago, came news of another death.

“My heart goes out to the Lundy family, I know the pain that they are suffering. This is exactly what I have been dreading the thought of, for the last seven months. The thought of yet another family in pain, it makes me so sick.” said Heather Boehlke, widow of locomotive remote control operator Jared Boehlke, upon hearing the news of the death of Samuel W. Lundy, who was killed while performing locomotive remote control switching in Minneapolis on Tuesday, December 29.

Railroad workers and concerned humans across the country are writing to Congressman James Oberstar, the powerful chair of the House Transportation Committee, to urge that strict regulations be imposed on the railroads using RCO.  You can get a sample letter here.  I’m sealing the envelope tonight and sending the letter tomorrow, because poorly regulated remote control operations of locomotives is a really dumb idea, and it’s costing people their lives.  If the railroads keep expanding the operations, how long before an accident involving hazardous materials seriously impacts not just one family at a time, but hundreds?