Labor productivity soared in the United States in 2009. According to the Transport Times of December 3, 2009, productivity increased by 6.4% in the second quarter and leaped by 8.1% in the third quarter.
Labor costs fell at a 2.5% rate in the third quarter of 2009, capping the biggest 12-month drop in seven years.
This good news for corporate America is the upside for them of the “Great Recession” that began in late 2007. Clearly, workers who have had the good fortune not to have been laid off are willing to work harder for less, just for the privilege of having a job.
Jared Boehlke may or may not have been aware of these statistics as he worked in the CSX Selkirk rail yard on Mother’s Day of 2009, during the second quarter of this dramatic increase in US labor productivity. His job, running a locomotive via remote control, hooking up railcars in the departure yard, had been created to replace that of a locomotive engineer working with a brakeman or conductor to do this work. Jared was working alone, standing on the ground and moving cars around with a remote control beltpack, doing the work of both the engineer and the conductor.
The recession had resulted in layoffs in the car department whose workers should physically hook railcars’ air lines together and do various quick repairs. So when Jared found a car with a broken knuckle, he was unable to get anyone to help him from the car department. With no other crewmember to assist, he was ordered to make the repair himself; the cars rolled together, and he was crushed between them.
He died shortly thereafter, leaving behind a wife and a three-year-old daughter. Another worker paid the price of leaving corporations to do what they please about staffing and technological changes like remote control of locomotives.
Jared’s widow Heather has refused to accept his death as one of the regrettable but inevitable consequences of working in a dangerous industry. She is campaigning for changes in the way this new railroad technology is regulated by the Federal Government, through its rail arm, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). She is supporting Jared’s union United Transportation Union‘s demand that the FRA ban one-person crews and that the FRA issue strict regulations on the use of this technology, not the suggested toothless guidelines that currently are in place.
Late in 2009, Heather and a group of rail unionists have met with Jared’s Congressman, Paul Tonko, to urge action on the issue of rail remote control. Following this meeting, a campaign has been was launched — and adopted by Railroad Workers United (RWU) — to get letters of support sent to Congressman James Oberstar, head of the House Transportation Committee.
It should be understood that this issue is not just one of safety for rail workers. Rail yards are where all types of hazardous materials are handled when cars are sorted and switched from one train to another. Is it in the interest of public safety for one person, often working alone in the dark, to do the work formerly done by two or more workers?
The RWU campaign letter to Congressman Oberstar states: “Regulations governing conventional rail operations are in place to protect not only rail workers but also the public from potentially devastating accidents. That protection is not in place for any of us as long as rail carriers are able to avoid complying with vital RCO safety and operating regulations.”
You are urged to support the campaign to ban one-person crews and for FRA regulation of locomotive remote control use. There must be more to working for a living than the relentless drive for corporate profits. Jared Boehlke’s death must not have been in vain.
To get involved in the campaign, see the RWU website at www.railroadworkersunited.org and click on the link “Campaign Against Single Employee Crews.” We have sample letters, articles, flyers, and copies of the RWU Resolution.
|Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.|