The train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio catapulted the degraded condition of the US’s freight rail network into national consciousness. But workers have been sounding the alarm for years. Long hours, short staffs, poor sick leave, and dangerously extended trains have raised the risks inherent in railroad operations for workers and the public in order to fatten the profit margins of corporate rail carriers. While the Department of Transportation has called for stricter regulation in the wake of East Palestine and other recent disasters, rank-and-file workers say it’s not enough. The problem is not simply one of inadequate regulation, but the power of private, profit-driven interests to shape what is ultimately public infrastructure. Thus comes the call to nationalize the railroads. But how might this be accomplished, and how effectively can it solve the problems plaguing the rail system today? Journalist and professor Kari Lydersen and former Railroad Workers United General Secretary Ron Kaminkow join TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez to discuss current issues in the US rail system, and the potential solutions nationalization could offer.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. She is the author of numerous books, including Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99% and Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons from the Fight to Shut Down Chicago’s Coal Plants.
Until recently, Ron Kaminow served as General Secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as President of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Kaminkow helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU), an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, where he is the Vice President of BLET Local 51.
Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Adam Coley
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor in chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer supported non-profit media network. We don’t take corporate cash, we don’t do ads, and we don’t put our reporting behind paywalls, which means we need each one of you to become monthly sustainers of our work so we can keep bringing y’all coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. So just head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a supporter today. It really makes a difference.
For the past year and a half here on The Real News, we have relentlessly covered the crisis on the nation’s freight railroad system from the side that traditionally has been ignored or actively silenced by the corporate media, the worker’s side. Here on our YouTube channel, on our podcast feed, and in text articles on our website, we have spoken to current and retired railroad workers across the US from conductors and engineers to carmen, dispatchers, and track maintenance workers.
And what we have heard time and again, is that the railroads are in the midst of a self-induced crisis that is running workers and the supply chain into the ground, all for the sake of record profits for the Class I rail carriers and their wealthy executives and Wall Street shareholders. The corporate media, politicians in DC, and the public at large finally began to take an interest in this story late last year when the high stakes contract negotiations involving the rail companies and the 12 craft unions representing around 115,000 workers across the freight rail system reached a critical inflection point, and we as a country were staring down the barrel of a very real possibility of a national rail shut down in September, and then again in late November and early December.
And we all know what happened then. At the urging of pro-union President Joe Biden, Democrats and Republicans in Congress voted to undercut workers’ ability to strike, forcing them to accept a contract that a critical mass of workers had already rejected. There’s no sugarcoating it. The political establishment screwed over railroad workers and essentially gave the rail carriers, which again are seeing record profits, everything they wanted. Leaving them basically zero incentive to change their ways or to curtail the voracious cost cutting profit maximizing schemes that workers had been sounding the alarm about to anyone who would listen.
Then the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio happened in early February of this year, and the entire country got a horrifying look at what workers were warning about. As Mike L., a veteran carman wrote in an op-ed that we published here at The Real News in March, “What is perhaps most devastating about the East Palestine disaster is the fact that it was avoidable. Norfolk Southern has spent the last five years deferring maintenance, furloughing employees, rushing inspections, cutting corners on repairs, and threatening and retaliating against employees who didn’t comply with any of the directives put in place to accomplish their ultimate goal of an operating ratio below 60%. Those of us who work in the rail industry knew it was only a matter of time before a disaster like this happened. Unfortunately, we were ignored and the people of East Palestine, like as of this week, the people of Raymond, Minnesota are the ones paying for it.”
Now, these events have focused on the railroads a level of public scrutiny they haven’t been subjected to in quite some time. And with each passing week, as news of more trained derailments filters into public view, we are seeing renewed calls by rail workers and others to nationalize the railroads. As journalist Kari Lydersen recently wrote in a blockbuster cover story for the magazine, In These Times, “The threatened railroad strike underscores how much the US economy depends on freight railroads. It also exposes the fragility of a system owned and run in large part by four massively profitable carrier companies that act as de facto monopolies. BNSF and Union Pacific run the vast majority of freight west of the Mississippi River, while Norfolk Southern and CSX run most of the freight to the east.
In 2021 BNSF and Union Pacific reported record profits of 6.5 billion and $6 billion respectively, while Norfolk Southern reported a record $4.45 billion and CSX notched $3.8 billion. The profit is doled out to highly paid executives and shareholders with too little invested back into operations and infrastructure, as many workers and some industry experts see it. The imbalance has helped make the case for more decision making power for railroad workers and a greater oversight role for the public. Railroad workers who support nationalization would like to see workers in direct leadership positions, and think removing the profit motive would translate to better working conditions”
All right. So let’s talk about these calls to nationalize the railroads. Where are they coming from? Are they really as radical as some have made them out to be? And what could nationalization actually look like in practice. To talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined today on The Real News by two very special guests. First up, we have Kari Lydersen herself. Kari is a Chicago based journalist, author, and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Madill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing, Communications. She’s the author of numerous books, including Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%, and Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons from the Fight to Shut Down Chicago’s Coal Plants.
We’re also joined once again on The Real News by Ron Kaminkow. Until recently, Ron served as general secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, Ron served as president of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Ron helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United, an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, where he is the vice president of BLET Local 51. Ron, Kari, thank you both so much for joining me today on The Real News. I really appreciate it.
Okay, so we got a lot to talk about here and I feel like, as I said in that intro we’ve been really sort of trying to cover the news on the railroads as it comes out from workers’ perspectives. But since I have both of you all on, I want to kind of take a bit of a bird’s eye view here, and talk about this question of nationalization. But I guess by way of setting us up to do that, so much has happened in the past two years or so regarding the railroads. And I think it’s important for us to kind of stop and take stock of where we are right now and how we got here.
And since we want this to kind of be a more evergreen discussion that folks can return to, I wanted to use this first time around the table to sort of break down what we have seen recently on the railroads, from mass layoffs and furloughs over the past six years, to COVID-19, to the contract fight, and Biden and Congress’ intervention, to the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine. So can we go around starting with Kari and then you Ron, let’s just like refresh everyone’s memory and try to take stock of all the news about the railroads that we’ve been seeing, and just refresh viewers’ memory about what the current state of the freight rail industry is.
Well, that’s a great and a huge topic, and I know Ron could give you from the day one of the railroad industry up until now, a great encyclopedic answer. So maybe I’ll leave most of it to him. But I’ll say especially as a journalist coming into it, I’ve gotten the chance starting back when our RWU started 15 or more years ago to really learn a lot about the railroad industry, but still as a relative layperson and newcomer to it.
I think the things that are most striking about the current situation is, one, how the railroads, even as these major carrier companies, even as they’ve become more and more profitable, they’ve been scaling back their service and carrying less freight, and of course, doing it with fewer people and really just sowing dissatisfaction, not only among the workers, which is kind of more expected and something you see in so many industries, but also among their customers, the shippers that are relying on railroads to ship things, and then by extension the public. They may not know what role railroad dysfunction has in the supply chain issues and in the high prices they’re paying and in other things that affect their lives, but really everyone is directly affected by this dysfunction that the major companies have entirely caused in their pursuit of profit.
And that was really clear in numerous ways, but including at these hearings last April that the federal government held where workers and union leaders and shippers themselves, who aren’t necessarily usually on the same page, they really had the same complaints about the way the railroad companies were doing business. And the shippers were bringing up the same issues the workers were bringing up, and they may or may not have actually cared about the workers’ wellbeing, but they were seeing that the way the industry is structured and the way the workers are treated was directly resulting in poor service for the shippers who are trying to move their goods and all the industries that rely on these goods. So I’ll leave it at that, and I know Ron has a ton more to say.
Yeah, well thanks, Kari. Like you say, the rail industry has pissed off a lot of people. And they have historically, of course, been pissing off the railroad workforce since the 1870s. We saw the country’s first general strike in 1877 led by railroad workers, and then a whole series of strikes, both large and small, throughout the 1880s, right into the 20th century.
And so the first labor law really that was passed in this country that allowed unions to actually be legally recognized was the Railway Labor Act in 1926. And it was to provide labor peace because the rail industry and its workers were constantly at war. And it wasn’t in the interest of the nation as a whole, and one could say it wasn’t in the interest of the rail industry either, or in the railroad workforce.
So anyway, without getting into the Railway Labor Act, fast forward to today, or at least the last five to 10 years, and we’ve seen the rail industry make enemies of many of its shippers, large and small. So lots of small ones have simply defected to the highway because they have been priced out of the market by rail. The service is so lousy. If you’re a small shipper who wants to ship a box car load of lumber a week, let’s say, the rail industry is not that interested in you because the rate of return on investment is less than the average operating ratio that Max had talked about.
And so if you’re a little business shipping one or two carloads a week or even a month, making the company, oh, 10 or 20 cents on the dollar, that’s not good enough. That’s actually dragging down the corporate operating ratio. So it’s alienated small shippers, but it’s also alienated big ones like Foster Farms in California that gets grain trains by the train load. And Union Pacific was incapable of delivering these trains on time. Some of you all might remember back this summer, it was a crisis where Foster Farms was in danger of literally losing millions of animals potentially because grain was not able to be delivered. So the Surface Transportation Board had to get involved. But it wasn’t just agricultural shippers. It’s those who are shipping fertilizers and finished steel, automobiles, recycling, energy, coal. Most of the big shippers groups have complained vociferously to the Surface Transportation Board.
Now, as for railroad workers, which is Railroad Workers United’s prime interest here, you can talk to 120,000 railroad workers, whether they be dispatchers, car inspectors, machinists, electricians, or hostlers who work in the diesel house, conductors and engineers who work aboard the locomotive, or track workers or signal maintainers in the field, or any of the other crafts that I might have left out, and you will get an echo, pretty much the same theme. We are overworked, we are mistreated, we are not given time off. We are faced with endless rules and regulations. We are faced with harsh discipline. The situation is always changing. We’re expected to keep up with it. The railroad industry is not interested in our health, and apparently not interested in our safety. And we are working longer and longer hours, and we’re not given the tools, we’re not given the instruction and the training to do the job properly.
And this has reached, I would consider, fairly universal proportion. So therefore, Railroad Workers United, who entered the field about 15 years ago, and we’ve discussed this ultimate question of ownership, and would it make sense for the railroads to be publicly owned like they are in much of the rest of the world? And up until a couple years ago, Max, there was no consensus, there was no sense that this would be a solution. A number of railroad workers still felt that their best bet was in the private ownership of the railroads. We won’t go into all the reasons for that. But those reasons I think have largely eroded and melted away. We believe that railroad workers are fairly unanimous that what we have right now today is not working. The railroads have made a mess of the industry. We are not happy with their management. And public ownership could solve many of our problems and many of the industry’s problems. And so last fall, we officially came out in support of a publicly owned worker run railroad system in the United States.
Oh yeah. So I want to talk about this resolution that RWU signed on to specifically in a second. And like I said, we’re going to round out by really kind of talking through what we mean when we say nationalize the railroads. That can mean a number of different things. And in fact, if you look at American history, or if you look at examples abroad, you can see that there are a number of ways that we could approach this question of nationalizing the railroads. But before we get there, I wanted to build on what y’all were saying, and really sort of make the case, as Kari does in her incredible in-depth piece for In These Times, which everyone should go read. Y’all should also, if you haven’t already, go back and listen to, watch, and read all of the different interviews with railroad workers that we have published here at The Real News Network.
We don’t have time to get into everything there, but I think if you read Kari’s piece, if you go back and listen to those interviews, it’ll become clear why so many folks are calling for nationalizing the railroads. But I guess in case anyone is still sort of unsure about that, I wanted to go back around the table and ask us to make that case. Let’s talk about why everything we’re talking about here points towards the need for nationalization, right?
Because it’s just there’s so much here to consider. But just to kind of sum up again what the three of us were already telling you guys, the nation’s freight rail system has been subject to a long brewing trend of corporate consolidation, and de facto shared monopolies across the country. This has led to kind of regional monopolies for certain carriers who have been able to have a strangle hold on a vital part of the supply chain, passing on whatever costs they want to shippers who have no choice but to ship products on the rails. You can’t unload all of that onto the highways on trucks and stuff like that.
So you have kind of like a captive industry, held captive by what is effectively an oligopolistic cartel of the major Class I freight rail carriers who are, as of the past few decades, slavishly beholden to their Wall Street shareholders and Wall Street minded executives who have been pushing this sort of cult of the operating ratio that we’ve talked about relentlessly here on The Real News, right? Cutting operating costs year after year after year. What does that mean? Cut your workforce, disinvest, or not invest enough in track maintenance, in car repair, in checking, maintaining, and updating technologies like the hot box detectors, which were a big topic of discussion around the East Palestine train derailment as well.
And so what that leads to is just more work being piled onto fewer workers who have less time to do that work and who face relentless kind of hounding from management to meet quotas, along with draconian attendance policies that are created and implemented to basically hold workers captive in these sorts of conditions because the railroads have cut all the reserve workers who would normally be there to offer support and relief in case anyone got sick or couldn’t make their call or anything like that. So you have, again, just all of this perfect storm brewing. And all of it is really driven by this sort of profit maximizing fever coming from the railroad carriers and their shareholders.
So I wanted to ask you guys, yeah, if we could say a little more from the derailments we’re seeing, not just in East Palestine, but beyond, everything that workers have been telling us about how they’re burning out, quitting the industry reportedly in record numbers, either fleeing to passenger service or leaving the industry altogether. How does all of this, all of what we’re talking about here, make the case for nationalization?
And I know folks, especially in this country, may be very skeptical of the question of nationalization. That’s something that I would’ve been skeptical of growing up as a conservative. And as Kari rightly points out in her In These Times article, after seeing what Biden and Congress did to the railroad workers, I think we have a lot of reason to be skeptical about the question of nationalization. But let’s talk about why the issues we’re already talking about and the issues we’ve been seeing on the freight railroads of late, why does that underscore the need for us to have a serious conversation about nationalization, rather than leave the industry in the hands of these corporate oligarchs like we currently do?
Well, I think on the most basic level, the events of the past year drove home just how crucial the freight railroad industry is to the country functioning at all. So I think you can put it in the same bucket as healthcare and education and highways, public utilities, things that for the most part are government run or have been. And then things like healthcare and education, you see trends to privatize them.
But anyway, these really crucial industries, it just makes sense on the most basic level that the service will be better, the public will be better served if revenue is rolled back into the actual operations, and making things as environmental as possible and as safe as possible and treating workers well. And when you have things like healthcare and education that are privatized, that were public and are privatized, or you look in other countries where railroads were public, but were privatized, you almost inevitably see problems. Things becoming less safe, less effective, less desirable.
So it just makes sense that all those massive profits that the shareholders of these companies are getting, if those profits were reinvested into actually improving railroads, of course they would run better and they would serve the public better. It just seems like a no-brainer. And then there’s also the issue of logistical coordination, and we haven’t even mentioned passenger rail, but that’s part of this too that obviously Ron can talk a lot about.
I mean as you mentioned or alluded to, the government doesn’t necessarily always do a great job of running things or coordinating things, but right now you have these different companies who own the tracks and are competing with each other, and not competing enough in some ways since they’re virtual monopolies, but have their own motives to make profits. Whereas if you had an entity like the public, representatives of the public, who had the ability to run the whole system as one unified system, and make decisions about where the trains run, and when they run, and how you can most effectively serve all the interests out there, if that’s done well, that would clearly be better than having this mishmash privately run structure where this massive private profit motive underlies everything.
So I think the big picture, the why, it would be hard to argue with those why’s. When you get to a more granular and political level, it’s a different story. But it just almost seems like common sense that this is the sort of sector that should be nationalized.
Yeah, the big picture, it makes sense, just like highways are publicly owned. And I don’t think too many people would want to see them privatized. Our river system in this country, massive amounts of freight go up and down the Ohio River, the Mississippi, the Missouri. I don’t think we would want to see our rivers sold off. And so the idea of the railroads being publicly owned, if you look at it through that prism is not that extraordinary a prospect.
But rather than get into at this point why it’s good for the environment, why it’s good for the expansion of passenger rail, why it is good for so-called transportation justice, why it’s good for shippers, and why it’s good for the rail industry itself, right now, I’ll just talk about why public ownership would be good for workers. So railroad workers did have a brief experiment with public ownership back in the 1910s for a couple of years. And the railroads were in effect nationalized by the US government because they couldn’t deliver for the war effort and meet the needs of the nation during World War I. So they were temporarily “nationalized.”
As this was coming to a close, the Woodrow Wilson administration was ready to put the railroads back into private hands. Every single rail union, and 99% of the railroad workers who voted in a mass plebiscite of hundreds of thousands, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the railroads in public ownership and running them according to this thing called the Plumb Plan. So anyway, rail labor has a actual history of supporting public ownership after its brief experience with what it taught them back in the ’10s, over a 100 years ago.
And once again, we’ll fast forward to today and look at what we have endured. So in some sense, Max, it’s the devil you know versus the devil that you don’t. And the devil that we know right now has caused job cuts in the last four or five years alone of 30 to 40% in the various crafts across the board. For those who didn’t lose a position, they lost years, if not decades, of seniority, ended up back on the extra board, back on a lower paying job, back on a more difficult job. In other words, their job prospects took a dive as a result of the private rail industry’s search for greater and greater profits. Now we’re facing constant threats to the two-person crew. And rail industries made it clear, if it had its way, there would be no more two-person crew, that it’d only be one. And they’ve made no bones about the fact they’d like to see the trains run with nobody aboard them. So now you’re looking at even more job cuts.
And at some point, the railroad retirement system is going to be threatened. And it’s something that’s near and dear to the hearts of every railroad worker. If you don’t have workers paying into it, guess what? You don’t get a retirement annuity. And so every railroad worker’s concerned about these ever plunging levels of employment. And that seems to be what we’re faced with in a future of private ownership. We’re dealing with these ever, ever longer trains. They’re more difficult to handle, they beat the hell out of the track. They seem to derail with a greater frequency. The derailments are more severe. So it’s a more dangerous situation in that and in many other ways on the railroad.
We’re all working longer hours. There’s more overtime, longer tours of duty for trainmen and engine men. And the hostility that the rail industry has shown to passenger rail expansion, the one place that’s a bright spot where railroad jobs could be expanding in passenger rail. And the Class I’s have made it very, very clear through their word and deed, that they’re very opposed to more Amtrak frequencies and more Amtrak routes running passenger trains, getting in the way of their 15,000 foot freight trains out on the mainline.
We’re moving less freight. 16 years ago in 2006, not only did we have a boatload more employees, but we were moving 20% more freight than we are today. So the rail industry is actually sabotaging the railroad industry itself for the sake of these short-term profits. And once again, that means less jobs for railroad workers, less jobs for our sons and daughters and so forth.
Draconian attendance policies. They started to come in when I was hiring into the railroad back in the ’90s. And I watched in horror as BNSF unveiled the first availability policy. I was not working for BNSF. And I remember all of us thinking, thank goodness we don’t work for them. Well, the new attendance policy that came out just last year was way worse. And this seems to be the wave of the future, even though they’re in a state of retreat right now because they got a black eye from it, they have made it clear that they expect us to be at work on time, no grace period every day, or suffer the consequences.
And then the failure to invest in the industry. The railroad has squandered the last 20 years where all the profits have gone to dividends, CEO pay, stock buybacks that could have gone to electrifying, double tracking, siding lengthening so that we could be getting freight off the highway and back on the rail where it belongs. But instead, like I pointed out, we’re moving 20% less freight. We should be moving more. There should be more railroad jobs, not the 30% less that we’re seeing.
And so it’s a sad situation for railroad workers. Now, a railroad worker may make the case, “Yeah, well, that’s better than having the government own the railroads.” I would postulate at this stage of the game, things have gotten so bad that most railroad workers, even the most anti-government, anti-public ownership, would still wager on public ownership simply because what do we have to lose at this stage of the game? The rail industry’s made it very clear the direction they want to go in. That direction is not in our interest. Personally, I would say, no matter what your political views are, if you work for the railroad, it’s time to roll the dice and say, look, nothing could be worse than what we’re facing today. Let’s go with public ownership.
I think that’s powerfully put, as always. And I think it’s really important to consider that. I mean, because again, we understand, I understand and feel myself many reservations when I hear let’s nationalize this or let’s have the government take over this. Again, I was raised very conservative, so some of that is just muscle memory, but also because I’ve seen how much the government can screw things up as well. And I know that people in good faith will ask questions like, “Well, isn’t that just going to mean that the government or whoever is kind of publicly owning the railroads, it’s going to be less efficient. Shouldn’t we let the market kind of dictate how this industry is run. The market knows all. It’s the most efficient.” Yada, yada, yada.
And I just kind of think back to, again, the way that the high stakes contract negotiations last year, and at that point, we were basically three years into the negotiations. Those negotiations didn’t just start happening last year. But when it all kind of came crashing down with Joe Biden and Congress forcing a contract down workers’ throats, the line that we kept hearing from the White House on down was that the railroads are too important to our economy. They’re too vital to our supply chain to allow workers to strike on the railroads. And I feel like the obvious retort was, well, if that’s the case, if the railroads are too important to allow workers to strike, then they are too God damn important to be left in the hands of corporate and Wall Street vampires who are running it into the ground for the sake of their bottom line.
I feel like I’m going nuts here, but I mean, it feels like this logic when we talk about the market or we talk about the importance of the supply chain, it only goes one way. And we never actually hold the carriers themselves to the same standard that we are holding unions and workers to. And the thing is, as we’ve been saying already, and as we talked about with the derailment in East Palestine, this is all of our problems.
These trains aren’t running through the backyards and town squares of rich enclaves and wealthy suburbs. They’re running through working class communities. They’re running through our communities. They’re running past our schools and our baseball fields. We’re the ones who are sitting in traffic waiting for these three mile long trains to pass by. We are the ones who are left dealing with the fallout if and when these trains that are way too long to be on the rails, and have way too few people operating them, if something happens and they derail, if they crash, or if there’s a toxic spill, what have you, we’re the ones who are having to deal with the fallout of that.
And you can see examples of this everywhere. Remember dear viewers and listeners, it was about a year ago, a little over a year ago, when the entire corporate media was losing its collective mind when a train in Los Angeles had been looted. And everyone was talking about a crime wave, and how could this possibly happen? What the media wasn’t telling you is that, just weeks prior to that, Union Pacific had just gone through another round of layoffs, laying off thousands of more workers. So you had a train like the one in LA, which workers also said was way too long. So that’s why it was sticking all the way out that far. There were barely any people working on that train. So it’s kind of a sitting duck for looters and stuff like that.
So that’s just one little example of how what the rail carriers have been doing to the supply chain and to the rail workers directly translates to the stuff that you are seeing and experiencing every day. East Palestine is another, right? I know everyone wants to kind of say that, oh, this was a freak accident because of a faulty bearing. Yes, there’s some truth to that. But as the folks that we’ve talked to have said over and over again, you could have caught this before a catastrophic derailment like East Palestine happened if we hadn’t been relentlessly cutting the carmen who are inspecting these cars, if we hadn’t been replacing and outsourcing track maintenance and stuff like that with technology. And we are also cutting the staff of the dispatchers, so the signal coming from a hot box to a dispatcher’s going to take more time to marshal a response.
So all these kind of staff cuts, again, they increase the likelihood of derailments like this happening, they dampen the response time. And again, they’re putting all of us at hazard. So I think, as Ron said and as Kari said, all of our reservations, not withstanding, we need to look at what’s around us and ask, well, are we fine with more of this? Right? Because as it happens right now, the rail carriers really don’t have a whole lot of incentive to change.
And so building off that, because I could talk to you guys for days, but I know I can’t keep you for too long, let’s talk about, now that we’ve gotten through the why of nationalization, and why people should at least consider nationalization as opposed to the kind of corporate captured, shared oligopoly system that we’ve got right now, let’s talk a little bit about the how, right?
And Kari goes into this in great depth in her In These Times article, and Railroad Workers United, as we aforementioned, even kind of put out a call signing on for a resolution calling for railroad nationalization. I wanted to ask you guys, Ron, you already gave us one historical example during World War I where the railroads were effectively nationalized, and in fact, rail workers wanted to keep them nationalized, but the tycoons and companies and capitalist interests couldn’t allow that to happen.
So I guess for folks out there who are maybe at least open to entertaining the question of nationalization, let’s talk a little bit about what that could look like. Is this just the government taking everything? Is it the government owning the rails? Is it a democratic cooperative ownership model where workers are the ones kind of making those decisions? Do we have other examples in the US or beyond that we could sort of look to think about what this could look like? So we don’t have to talk about everything under the sun because I know this is a big question, but just let’s go back around the table and talk a little bit about what practically railroad nationalization could look like.
Yeah. So in terms of how nationalization could actually happen, people might be surprised to know that we actually, the public, the government, has nationalized many industries throughout history, including railroads, as Ron mentioned. Even department stores, telecommunications, steel mills, coal mines, all kinds of essential industries have been nationalized it. The difference is that this was usually during times of war or other emergency times, and it was usually meant to be temporary.
And these nationalizations usually did have good results. As Ron mentioned with the railroads during World War I, in a lot of cases, changes in the industry were made for the better during the public’s ownership. But they did in most cases revert back to private ownership. So with the railroads, we’re talking about something that would be much longer term. And the idea that the government, the public, again, would, as opponents would surely frame it, seize these companies, seize this private property and run the whole system, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
But the first step that does seem like something we could contemplate is that the government, the public, would own and run the tracks and the infrastructure, and basically have the responsibility and the right and the obligation to manage this system, to have some role in setting prices and making sure that shippers have access to this public service, and be able to coordinate schedules in the most efficient and logical way, protect workers’ rights for sure, top priority. So not only actually own the infrastructure, just like the government owns highways and waterways, but also manage and highly regulate it. And then you can still have the private companies, so you’re not liquidating these companies. They could still make plenty of profit operating within this structure. And you probably could even introduce more competition in that sense too for the people that think market competition is the way to go.
And who knows? Maybe down the line there’s a way that transitions into even fuller public ownership. There’s other models of nationalization out there too. There’s been calls to nationalize the fossil fuel industry by basically having the public buy up stock, own a majority of shares in fossil fuel companies, and then be able to clean them up or shut them down or whatever it may be because they’re majority owners. That’s the kind of thing that could happen with railroads too theoretically. That seems less exciting to me and to a lot of other people because that’s just sort of operating within these structures that have proved so problematic already.
But I think also the fact that in during the auto bailout and insurance bailouts in the past recessions, the government has actually done this, has taken controlling interest in companies, including by giving them a bunch of money to take those temporary controlling interests. So again, that’s just more proof that this isn’t such an unprecedented thing to think about. But the idea that the public could own and run the railroads, even having BNSF, CSX, these companies still operating on them is not that far afield. And then of course, making sure that workers, how the public runs it and making sure that workers are in the driver’s seat would be so crucial. And I’m sure that’s something that Ron can talk a lot more about.
So I would start by saying that there’s as many different ways that you can run a private rail system as you could run a public one, and as Kari laid out, there’s a number of different models or options that have existed when industries, not just rail, have been taken into public ownership. But if you look at a brief history of the rail industry in our country, what we see is that the rail industry has been either not regulated at all, or lightly regulated, or heavily regulated at different times in its existence. It’s still been a private industry, but it has operated in a number of different manners based upon the restrictions, the regulations placed upon it by the federal government.
So turning to public ownership, I would say, yeah, there is a endless number of different models that we could work from. And I’m sure that lots of different railroad workers and lots of different environmental activists and other political people have their own idea of how they would like to see the rail industry come into public ownership and control. I’m fairly partial right now to what’s called the Plumb Plan. And this was the plan that rail labor supported. Plumb actually was an attorney who was on retainer by rail unions back in the day 100 years ago, and was this huge advocate for public ownership. There’s a small book here of 30 pages, it’s an easy read, called Labor’s Plan for Government Ownership and Democracy in the Operation of the Railroads.
And one of the key things about the Plumb Plan was that it provided for a board of directors that would be one third railroad managers, professional railroad managers, and it would be one third government appointees, and it would be one third workers, which is to say, representatives of the organized railroad workforce. And so these 21 odd individuals, let’s say seven from each sector, would govern the railroad board.
Now, if you look at the board today of Class I railroads, you don’t see any workers. There are no public officials or public servants, and not even too many railroad managers actually. What you see is people on boards who are professional Wall Street hedge fund managers and others. And so I think most Americans, given our basic predisposition towards democracy participation, no taxation without representation, all of these things that we hold near and dear would kind of like this idea.
Now, I would add that in the public appointees, these could be representatives, for example, also including passenger operations experts, a representative from Amtrak, or maybe the president of Amtrak, perhaps the head of the Interior Department, or the Environmental Protection Agencies, individuals who represent shippers, for example, who now are not represented whatsoever on the boards of directors of current day Class I privately held railroads.
And so if you start to examine the Plumb Plan as just a taking off point, keeping in mind that it was 100 years ago, so there’s lots of tweaks and changes that we would advocate, and the devil’s definitely in the details. But this model would be one that one would suspect would operate the industry far more efficiently, far more in the interest of its workers, its shippers, passengers, consumers, track side communities, the nation as a whole. And in fact, it would actually operate in the interest of the rail industry because rather than paying out exorbitant profits and bonuses and engaging in stock buybacks, the tens of billions of dollars would be spent on double tracking and electrification and modern high horsepower AC traction, electrified locomotives, and all the rest.
And so examining the Plumb Plan, you start to actually get a sense of how democratic it would be for workers, shippers, and other interest groups to actually be running the nation’s railroads, as opposed to just a handful of hedge fund managers who are interested in next quarter’s profit picture. So that’s kind of what I think we should start from. And not only because it’s a model that exists, but at the time it was incredibly popular. Every railroad union supported it. As I mentioned earlier, the miner’s union, the steel workers, the AFL CIO as a whole at its convention, I believe in 1919 or 1920, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to support public ownership of the railroads, the energy industry, and many other aspects of American economy. So something to start with, something to work for, and something that I certainly see as a great taking off point for the ideas of public ownership of the railroad.
Hell yeah. And man, I got so many ideas going through my head just off of that, and really encourage folks to look more into this. Follow Railroad Workers United, read Kari’s great peace for In These Times, ask the tough questions. But I promise you you’ll find a lot of interesting answers that may surprise you. I mean, I think we’ve covered a lot of the potential benefits for a policy of nationalizing the railroads, putting the railroads under public ownership instead of having them driven by this voracious profit motive, serving the bottom lines, and lining the pockets of wealthy executives and Wall Street shareholders.
There are some that we haven’t covered as much. I mean, in fact, there used to be a lot of other rail lines in operation, but they were less profitable. And so those get closed down for the same reason that trains have been getting longer and longer and heavier and heavier, right? It’s not efficient, but it helps the bottom line. And so we could expand rail in this country. We could, as both Ron and Kari have mentioned, we could electrify the rail systems. We could be talking about high speed rail and going all over the country they have in China. Instead, we’re talking about how our infrastructure is falling apart and our trains are exploding, poisoning entire communities like East Palestine, Ohio, and right on the border with Pennsylvania.
So these are the two paths that we’re talking about here. And there’s so much to consider, so many benefits to consider, even if the practicals of getting to nationalization are very hairy. But I think as Ron put it so aptly before, how much worse do things need to get with the current system before we actually start considering other alternatives? And Ron, Kari, by way of rounding out, I just wanted to quickly ask y’all if you had any other final thoughts on where folks can go to learn more about this, where they can go to find more of your work and to stay up to date with what’s going on on the rails?
Well, In These Times is such a wonderful publication, I feel really lucky to work with. They cover this and related issues really well all the time. And Railroad Workers United is where I learned so much of this and they’re just a wonderful resource for anybody.
Thanks, Kari. I would have to agree. And for those who haven’t gone to our website, railroadworkersunited.org, it’s a library of information. You can also sign up, there’ll be a popup that comes up in the first five seconds. You can easily sign up to get weekly news on a regular basis from us as to what’s going on in the rail industry, what’s going on in rail labor, and the larger labor movement as well.
And then specifically on the question of public ownership of the railroads, if you scroll down the links, you will come to RWU campaigns. The first one in the dropdown menu is public ownership of the railroad. So if you click on that, you can be connected to a series of links to dozens and dozens of articles, interviews like this one, TV and radio clips and more, as well as a list of endorsing organizations. Right now we have officially about three dozen organizations who have signed on in support of the campaign and the effort, and lots of information. You can also see the Plumb Plan and other information. So a great resource for anybody who’s interested in learning more about public ownership of the railroads.
So that is the great Kari Lydersen and Ron Kaminkow. Kari is a Chicago based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Madill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing, Communications. She’s the author of numerous books, including Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%, and Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons from the Fight to Shut Down Chicago’s Coal Plants.
Ron Kaminkow until recently served as general secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as president of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Ron helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United, an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, where he is the vice president of the BLET Local 51. Ron, Kari, thank you both so much for joining me today on The Real News. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much.
Great as always.