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 Senator Sherrod Brown told CNN, “There’s no question [that the railroad company] caused it with this derailment because they underinvested in their employees.”
“That’s why I’m angry when I look at these companies lay people off,” Brown said of the rail corporations, which have reaped enormous profits while undermining workers and lobbying against safety measures. “They never look out for their workers. They never look out for their communities. They look out for stock buybacks and dividends. 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? There’s talk in Congress and the major media about new regulations. But why not listen to the workers who know what’s needed to make the nation’s railroads more reliable, more responsible, and, above all, safer? They have a simple solution: nationalize the rail industry so that the people, not the corporations, are in charge.
“Railroads are systematically destroying the freight rail system,” explained Ross Grooters, a railroad locomotive engineer who cochairs Railroad Workers United, an inter-union solidarity caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers that has championed worker and community safety. “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.”
Last fall, as rail workers were engaged in a frustrating fight to get their bosses to provide paid sick leave and adopt needed safety measures, the Railroad Workers United (RWU) steering committee proposed the nationalization of the rail industry. The move got little attention at the time, but it’s picking up steam.
In an online resolution, the RWU detailed the arguments for public ownership of the railroads, explaining that corporate owners had, in their pursuit of profits, put the industry on an
irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers. 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—contrary to what the [major carriers] may state—have made them their riches.
Railroad Workers United concluded 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.”
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. 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 argued:
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.” American Federation of Labor President William Green 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 Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a progressive who had been the vice presidential nominee on Wisconsin Senator 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, Pa.
“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 that observed:
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.
Democratic Socialists of America, which has Ohio chapters that have been supporting mutual aid projects for communities near the East Palestine derailment site, has also endorsed public ownership—with a statement reflecting on the wreck. “This was no ‘natural disaster,’ nor was it unpreventable,” argues DSA. “Railroads like Norfolk Southern are owned and controlled by a handful of greedy billionaires, backed by equally greedy board members, who answer only to profit, even though it is the working class—from the overworked train crew, to the firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals, to the teachers at schools closed due to contamination, to displaced families living near the tracks—who bears the brunt of this and other rail disasters.”