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A Year After Derailment, Norfolk Southern Threatens To Roll Back Concessions

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It’s been a little over a year since Norfolk Southern’s disastrous freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The fire may be extinguished, but the consequences linger like smoke. 

East Palestine residents are still waiting on basic services like water tests and healthcare. Joe Biden, a day late and an inflated dollar short, visited the beleaguered community for the first time this February, on the one year anniversary of the derailment; it appears he was only spurred to visit following the second derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania. Norfolk Southern, meanwhile, appears to itself be going off the rails. 

Immediately following the incident, Norfolk Southern unnecessarily burnt five derailed train cars of vinyl chloride, and then offered to set up a charitable fund of $1 million for affected residents, which works out to just $212 per person. Following these embarrassments, and under pressure from the unions, East Palestine residents, and the general public, Norfolk Southern has made a few concessions: rail workers now enjoy a whopping seven days of sick leave, and the company has implemented some preliminary safety measures such as classification yards. So, that’s relatively good news, right? 

Not according to shareholders. An “activist investor” private equity firm called Ancora Holdings recently bought $1 billion of stock in Norfolk Southern and is now attempting to replace Alan Shaw, the CEO who presided over the derailment and gave himself a 37% pay raise, with an arguably worse figure: former UPS international executive Jim Barber, who, in that role, “capture[d] opportunities in south-to-south trade in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa.” Ancora also plans to instate a nightmare slate of directors, including former Ohio Governor Republican John Kasich, who notably quashed the Ohio Hub high speed rail project which could have provided high-quality public transportation for millions of working people. 

Ancora’s slate would reinstate an even more extreme version of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which played a huge role in causing the derailment in East Palestine last year, and claw back the small safety concessions that workers have won in the past year in the name of “growing profitability”. 

Railroads and freight transit are public goods. When they are mismanaged, it is the public and especially working-class communities that suffer. So why can a private equity firm decide how a major railway corporation is run, just because they have a billion dollars to spend? Both the East Palestine derailment and the immediately botched response served as a public indictment of the privatized railroad industry, which has been implementing dangerous cost-cutting measures like PSR and lobbying congress to do away with basic safety requirements for the better part of forty years. It could not be clearer that Norfolk Southern should be taken into public ownership under democratic control of the railroad workers: the people who prevent derailments and put out fires, instead of causing them. 

So, where are the rail unions in all of this? Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, penned an open letter to Norfolk Southern Shareholders, urging them not to support Ancora’s coup ahead of the scheduled May 9 vote. It is certainly necessary that TTD, which represents Norfolk Southern’s unionized workforce, responds to this situation. Unfortunately, a letter that openly pleads with shareholders and defends the current CEO, is a show of weakness rather than strength by the union leadership. Unions don’t win demands by making requests of shareholders: they win demands by exercising their power and withholding their labor. Regan’s letter reads more like a correspondence between industry insiders, than like the voice of thousands of workers whose jobs and literal lives could be on the line. The letter attempts to appease everyone, workers and shareholders alike. This is a mistake. 

Regan is likely correct that Acora’s slate would be worse for the union than the current leadership. Union struggles are often pragmatic and granular. It is not abnormal, or necessarily bad, for unions to strategize around which boss they’d rather negotiate against. However, there is a difference between adapting to tricky terrain and completely capitulating to the current boss for fear of a worse one. 

The current “leadership” of Norfolk Southern have proven completely incapable of running a railway, and Ancora’s attempted coup proves that the finance sector has only worse to offer, not better. Now would be the perfect time for the unions to put forward bold demands, not make meek requests of shareholders. What would happen if Norfolk Southern workers instead demanded that they be put in charge, and organized a strike to show they meant business? 

As workers, socialists, and union members, we don’t just make radical demands and expect the pieces to fall into place. Fighting for nationalization of key sectors like railways will take many strikes and a serious rank-and-file organization effort. But that doesn’t mean bold demands should be hidden. The irony is that, by militantly organizing and putting forward serious demands, TTD just might scare Norfolk Southern’s shareholders into keeping good ol’ Alan Shaw – and making some more concessions of safety as well. 

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