By JOHN LESLIE
Railroad Workers United (RWU), a cross-union rank-and-file caucus representing railroad workers across North America, has issued a call for “the public ownership of the rail infrastructure of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to be operated henceforth in the public interest, placed at the service of the people of all three nations.” Citing the degeneration of rail infrastructure and the predatory practices of the rail bosses, RWU is urging union leaderships in all three countries to support this bold idea.
Workers’ Voice has signed the statement issued by RWU, which we see as a step forward. However, socialists argue that public ownership of railroads, while necessary, is not enough. We say that the railroads, banks, and the energy sector must be nationalized under democratic workers’ control and without compensation to the capitalists who suck the life’s blood from our class. This is an essential element of the transition to an economy based on meeting human needs as well as a necessity in the face of the looming climate crisis. Without nationalization and democratic planning, the costs of a climate transition will be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable.
East Palestine, Ohio, and rail infrastructure
The East Palestine, Ohio, rail disaster clearly illustrates the malignant neglect of infrastructure by the capitalists, who reap record profits from the railroads while abusing their workforces. There are more than 1000 derailments annually—at least 1164 in the U.S. in 2022. While not every derailment results in a disaster on the scale of East Palestine, the potential is there when potentially hazardous toxic or explosive freight moves through both urban and rural areas.
From 1990, the year the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) started compiling data related to train derailments, to 2021, there were 54,570 train derailments in the U.S. This represents an average of 1760 derailments annually—roughly 4.8 derailments daily. Many railroad bridges are more than 100 years old. One bridge near Baltimore, which carries MARC commuter trains and CSX trains daily, was built in 1835. Unlike highway bridges intended for auto and truck traffic, the vast majority of rail bridges are the responsibility of the railroads.
In East Palestine, writes The Atlantic, “100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, were released, with some spilling into waterways. Many hundreds of people had to evacuate from their homes. An estimated 43,000 aquatic animals died. When emergency responders burned the cars containing vinyl chloride in an attempt to avoid an explosion, the fire likely created long-lasting toxic chemicals called dioxins. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of now-toxic water used to put out the fire had to be shipped to Texas to be disposed of deep underground. And if dioxins were created, they could trickle into the ground over time, contaminating the water in a community where people rely heavily on wells.”
Freight rail companies’ profits and stock prices have soared in recent years. For example, states The Florida Times-Union, at “CSX Corp., freight volume has dropped 7 percent since 2004. Meanwhile, its shares have climbed to $35 from less than $6, and its net income has risen 450 percent, to almost $1.9 billion in 2013, according to SEC filings.
“It’s the same story for the other three mega-railroads. Their traffic is down from a decade ago, but their profits are up: 107 percent for Norfolk Southern Corp., 626 percent for Union Pacific Corp. and 380 percent for BNSF Railway. Norfolk’s stock price has tripled, Union Pacific’s has sextupled, BNSF’s doubled before the company was gobbled up by Berkshire Hathaway in 2010.”
Rail labor under attack
As Workers’ Voice reported previously, rail workers have been under attack as working conditions, including slashed crew sizes and forced overtime, endanger the health and safety of rail workers.
Guy Miller, a retired railroad worker, wrote in a Facebook post: “The full story is not being told. The unions’ demand for a few sick days makes it sound as if 7 or 15 sick days were being added to a normal life. A road conductor or engineer has zero scheduled days off: Zero weekends. Zero personal days. Zero holidays. Zero sick days. Their only free time is governed by the inevitable telephone call, a call that may come at 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 7:15 a.m., the middle of a family dinner, while driving their kids home from school, or sitting in the waiting room of their dentist: anytime day or night. And when it comes they have two hours to report to work. That’s when they’re home. The same wait repeats when they’re in a hotel room 120 miles from home. Try living like that, day after day, year after year, sick or well, and the importance of sick days comes into focus.”
The so-called “Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Cori Bush (D-Mo.)—all expressed support for the rights and dignity of the rail workers. Nevertheless, except for Talib, they all voted for HJR 100, which “resolved” the grievances of rail workers by imposing a new contract on them and obstructing their right to strike. Four of these members of Congress—Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Bush, and Bowman—are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which condemned the imposition of the contract but failed to take any action against the housebroken “socialists” that voted to scab on workers.
The Democrats’ decision to stab labor in the back once again illustrates that there is no fundamental difference between DSA-backed “progressive“ Democrats and the other Democrats. On every issue related to the working class and oppressed—including union rights, immigrant rights, militarism and foreign policy, or dismantling the police and prison system—they line up on the same side. The Democrats ultimately serve the interests of capital.
Socialist reconstruction of the economy
Nationalizing the freight rail sector is a necessary measure for the protection of the interests of working people. Having the ability to move freight efficiently over long distances is essential to the health of the overall economy. Additionally, the passenger rail sector has been criminally neglected for decades while the U.S. squandered trillions of dollars on imperialist wars overseas.
We need more passenger rail, including regional light and heavy rail systems to take cars off the road as part of an overall response to the climate crisis. This means the conversion of both freight and passenger rail to electric trains instead of burning fossil fuels and the construction of high-speed rail lines to ease travel around the U.S. Currently, a passenger train trip across the U.S., from New York to San Francisco, takes well over three days. High-speed rail could move passengers the same distance in less than half that time.
Before the rise of car culture, people in the U.S. regularly traveled by train. According to writer Nathan Lee, “Prior to 1950, the United States had a higher per-capita rate of public transportation use than Germany. In 2010, however, Germany’s per-capita use of public transportation amounted to seven times that of the United States. Even in major urban areas like New York City, annual subway ridership has remained roughly the same since 1946, despite an explosive increase in population.”
Lee continues: “A typical passenger vehicle emits 404 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile, while national rail emits 66 grams of CO2 per mile. It is clear that sustainable transportation is essential for a decarbonized nation, and robust railways will be critical to reviving the public transportation system. When considering public transit investments, advocates urge the consideration of environmental justice, such as making rail cost-accessible and ensuring communities of color are not disproportionately impacted by rail construction. More public transit lines also lead to a decrease in air pollution from highways, which has been a primary environmental justice concern for decades.”
The Democrats have proven themselves to be incapable of even modest progress in the fight for climate justice. In recent months, Biden approved the $8 billion Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska, breaking his 2020 campaign promise to block oil drilling on federal land. Less than two weeks later, on March 29, Biden’s Interior Department began a process of auctioning off leases to over 73 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. Scientists and environmental groups have warned that these projects, if not halted, will increase the country’s long-term dependency on fossil fuels.
The betrayals of the Democrats on climate and their attacks on labor demonstrate the need for a political party of the working class and oppressed—a mass labor party. Such a party, when armed with a militant class-struggle program, could lead the fight for a just transition to a sustainable, planned socialist economy. This is the only way to address the climate catastrophe in a way that does not leave working people behind. To accomplish this task, the unions must stop subordinating the interests of our class to a party that was never on our side.
Graphic: Railroad Workers United poster.