The possibility that workers might strike against national freight rail companies has gotten some headlines recently. But the attacks of such companies against working class people threatens life in our communities as well as on the job. People in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore have fought back against one such attack by the giant CSX railroad.
Nationally, the 12 unions that represent freight rail workers in the United States have been in negotiations with the rail carriers for many months, with the Biden administration’s intervention making a strike illegal for months and pushing some unions to vote to accept an inadequate agreement that fails to provide workers with sick days and an adequate wage, and continues inadequate staffing that leads to seriously dangerous working conditions. Three unions have already rejected the agreement, and the two largest unions, including the train engineers’ union, are scheduled to finalize their vote on November 20. A nationwide strike could begin in early December. However, Biden’s Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has promised that the U.S. government will continue to intervene to prevent the workers from using their power with a strike.
In Baltimore, workers and their supporters are fighting back against the threat that the railroad companies’ inhumane policies and practices pose not only to workers involved in the contract fight, but also to neighborhoods close to the companies’ facilities. Baltimore area members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), one of the unions that has rejected the agreement, held an informational picket against the rail carriers and the proposed agreement. The workers emphasized on picket signs an infamous statement from the rail carriers falsely claiming that “labor does not contribute to profits.” Workers at the picket also pointed out that this action was initiated outside of any official sanctioning by BMWED, and that members of the union had rejected the deal despite the messaging from the union leaders encouraging voting in favor.
Meanwhile, a large shipping facility controlled by CSX in Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood threatens the health and safety of the working-class people who live there. Workers at the Curtis Bay CSX terminal move coal originating in Appalachia from freight trains onto ships for export. There were three explosions at the site on December 30, 2021, when the racially diverse, low-income neighborhood was blanketed in coal dust up to a 12-block radius. Two local residents supported by the Community of Curtis Bay Association (CCBA) filed a lawsuit against CSX, alleging that CSX’s negligent activity leading to the explosion was “knowing, intentional and reckless.” Beyond the effects of the explosion, which resulted in what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) called nine “serious violations,” residents say that they constantly suffer the impacts of airborne coal particles. Three nearby communities, the CCBA explains, have been condemned and abandoned due to the rapid expansion of toxic industrial activity in the area, and residents fear the same may happen to Curtis Bay. Government citations, like the OSHA violations, haven’t stopped these threats.
The private control by CSX and other rail carriers of our vital shipping infrastructure and operations, along with the federal government’s near-total support of corporate interests, clearly leads to disasters for workers and neighborhoods in Baltimore and across the country. The current labor and community struggles remind us that we have to fight to protect our health and safety against the bosses’ profiteering, both on the job and where we live.