When Norfolk Southern train 32N derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3rd, nearly half of its cars were carrying toxic chemicals. Apocalyptic footage of dark, black clouds hovering over the area is circulating in the media. “Cars containing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters,” according to a letter sent by the EPA to the company. Thousands of East Palestine residents evacuated, and upon return were told not to drink the water. There are reports of fish, chickens, pigs, and even household pets dying due to the chemical exposure.
This was no “natural disaster,” nor was it unpreventable. 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.
Rail workers have been telling us for decades that railroad carriers, including Norfolk Southern, are slashing safety operations and forcing crews to work long hours with no paid sick leave and little time off in the name of “operational efficiency.” They warned that Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) would lead to cut corners, serious safety concerns, and industrial accidents. True to their prediction, thousands of rail workers (notably, car inspectors) lost their jobs as work speedups forced crews to inspect cars, like those on train 32N, within 90 seconds, down from 3 minutes.
Norfolk Southern is downplaying the cause of and response to the East Palestine derailment. Between purposefully failing to enforce safety protocols over speedups, failing to coordinate with officials during the initial response, failing to communicate the number of cars which held hazardous chemicals, and failing to provide accurate information about the impact of said chemicals, it is obvious that the choices made by Norfolk Southern both ahead of and in the aftermath of the derailment were not to protect the workers and environment, but to protect their own backs – and their profits – despite capturing over $3.7 billion in profit in 2022 alone.
In response to the situation in Ohio, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg noted that “while this horrible situation has gotten a particularly high amount of attention, there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailing.” Meanwhile, yet another train operated by Norfolk Southern went off the rails in Van Buren Township outside Detroit, Michigan, on Thursday morning. This is an absurd condition for our society’s critical infrastructure.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) proudly fights for the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a democratically run economy that provides for people’s needs, not profit. As long as the profit motive remains in place, companies will neuter any regulations through regulatory capture. Private ownership needs no stake in a de facto public good that carries 30% of domestic cargo in ton-miles. Therefore, DSA is proud to join Railroad Workers United (RWU) and United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) in their demand for Congress to pass legislation placing railroads under public ownership immediately.
We cannot afford to allow capital to dictate how our society functions, nor the conditions under which we work. Dignified work, safe working conditions, modern infrastructure, a healthy planet – all are discarded the moment that they get in the way of profits. Capitalists do not deserve to call the shots anymore. We can, and must, fight for a better alternative. A beautiful, socialist future is ours – if we are willing to organize for it.
DSA members and their families live and work in the affected area. Since the time of the derailment, the community has experienced numerous health impacts, stress, lost wages and bills from evaluation, and other hardships that they know will continue for a long time to come. Mahoning Valley DSA and Ohio DSA chapters are organizing in response. How can you help?