U.S. railroad workers say the train derailment in Ohio, which forced thousands of residents to evacuate and is now spreading a noxious plume of carcinogenic chemicals across the area, should be an “eye-opening” revelation for Congress.
According to The Guardian, workers and union officials cited the Norfolk Southern Railway derailment in early February as a glaring example of why safety reforms to the industry need to be made.
Thirty-eight cars on the train derailed in the town of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania border, including 11 cars carrying hazardous materials that incited an evacuation order, a controlled release of chemicals, and fears of harmful chemical exposure to residents, wildlife and waterways.
Unions and rail companies have been at loggerheads for years over new contracts that would address what workers describe as poor working conditions, and would provide paid sick days amid grueling schedules caused by labor cuts.
“Without a change in the working conditions, without better scheduling, without more time off, without a better work-life balance, the railroad is going to suffer,” said Ron Kaminkow, the general secretary of Railroad Workers United, an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, and the vice-president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Corners get cut and safety is compromised.”
Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department, said the loss of workers in recent years, which has coincided with record profits for railroad corporations, was the driving force for deteriorating conditions on U.S. railroads.
The majority of workers in precision railroad scheduling systems – operational systems focused on cutting costs – currently have no paid sick days and face attendance points for taking time off, which could result in termination.
Workers have complained that disciplinary attendance systems, coupled with drastic staffing cuts, have diminished morale, incentivized workers to continue working through illness or fatigue and increased safety risks.
“This is the worst relationship that has been between the railroads and their workers in my career,” said Regan. He added that the tension had been exacerbated by the rail companies’ determination to increase profits by cutting staff.
“When you’re going to treat your employees that way, to continue to try to squeeze as many pennies out of each individual worker as you possibly can, without any regard for their wellbeing, you’re going to have really contentious bargaining sessions like we had last year,” he said.
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