A Norfolk Southern train

A Norfolk Southern train is en route on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Another train operated by the company derailed on February 3, releasing toxic fumes and forcing evacuation of residents.

(Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

Why Railway Workers Are Calling for a Nationalized Rail System

Much of the transportation infrastructure in the United States, including the interstate highway system, is publicly owned. Union members think safer railways can only be achieved by public ownership.

If the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, tells us anything, it is that the corporate CEOs, billionaire speculators and profit-hungry investors who control America's transportation systems are not up to the job of running railroads.

As Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told CNN, "There's no question (that the railroad company) caused it with this derailment because they underinvested in their employees."

Brown's angry with the railroad corporations. "They never look out for their workers. They never look out for their communities. They look out for stock buybacks and dividends," he says. "Something's wrong with corporate America, and something's wrong with Congress and administrations listening too much to corporate lobbyists. That's got to change."

But what should the change be? Railroad Workers United, an inter-union solidarity caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers that has championed worker and community safety, is making the case that "since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure—like the other transport modes—to be brought under public ownership."

"Railroads are systematically destroying the freight rail system," explained Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer who co-chairs RWU. "We need public ownership of this critical infrastructure to correct freight railroad problems—just like all other U.S. transportation infrastructure and other rail systems around the world."

RWU's argument for public ownership explains that corporate speculators have, in their pursuit of profits, put the industry on "an irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers."

The group detailed a litany of issues:

"On-time performance is in the toilet, shipper complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The ongoing debacle in national contract bargaining sees the carriers—after decades of record profits and record low operating ratios—refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who ... have made them their riches."

RWU members say that, under public ownership, many if not all of those issues would be better addressed.

That's not a particularly radical notion. Much of the transportation infrastructure in the United States, including the interstate highway system, is publicly owned. And the railroads were themselves under federal government control during World War I. When the war ended, rail workers and their unions pushed to keep the industry publicly owned. Eugene Victor Debs, a veteran railroad union leader, campaigned on the issue in his 1920 Socialist Party presidential bid. Many progressives, especially in farm country, agreed. But the government handed the railroads back to their wealthy owners and the issue died down—until the Great Depression devastated rural America.

In 1933, Joseph Bartlett Eastman, a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, was nominated by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve as Federal Coordinator of Transportation. The following year, Eastman wrote: "Theoretically and logically public ownership and operation meets the known ills of the present situation better than any other remedy. Public regulation of a privately owned and operated industry, reaching deeply into such matters as rates, service, capitalization, accounting, extensions and abandonments, mergers and consolidations, is a hybrid arrangement. When an industry becomes so public in character that such intimate regulation of its affairs becomes necessary, in strict logic it would seem that it should cease to masquerade as a private industry and the government should assume complete responsibility, financial and otherwise."

Eastman's ideas appealed to organized labor. Rail union heads called in 1935 for "the immediate taking over of the railways of the United States by the federal government and the creation of agencies within the federal government to manage and operate the railways."

William Green, who was then the American Federation of Labor president, told his group's convention: "It seems to me that the railroads are headed for government ownership. I do not see where we can find any other remedy. The only way the railroads can be saved, the interest of the workers maintained, and service be kept up for the good of the country is through government ownership."

In Congress, Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, a progressive who had been the vice presidential nominee on Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette's anti-monopoly ticket in 1924, was a steady advocate for public ownership of railways "as a matter of expediency."

Today, agitation for nationalization—which the great New York Times labor reporter A.H. Raskin once referred to as "the dirty word on U.S. railroads"—has been renewed. The Railroad Workers United effort has gained thoughtful attention in left media and support from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, whose members build locomotives in Erie, Pennsylvania.

"Our nation can no longer afford private ownership of the railroads; the general welfare demands that they be brought under public ownership," UE argued in a January statement. "Railroads are, like utilities, 'natural monopolies.' The consolidation of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. into five massive companies over the past several decades has made it clear that there is no 'free market' in rail transportation. With most customers having no other choice, and no central authority mandating long-term planning, each individual railroad company has little incentive to make investments in infrastructure and every temptation to take as much of their income as possible as profits."

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