SMART Transportation Division began a new era in rail safety and worker protection by working with Norfolk Southern to accept and act on anonymous safety reports.
How it Works
The one-year pilot program, called the Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), is similar to one airline personnel use to hold their airlines accountable. Rail workers will share safety concerns through a secure website. NASA, acting as an independent party, will organize, anonymize and share the reports with the FRA. Under FRA guidance, improvements will be made by a joint committee including SMART-TD representatives, other rail labor and Norfolk Southern management.
A Long Time Coming
C3RS first came to the rail industry in 2007 when SMART-TD predecessor UTU and Union Pacific participated in an early version, running until 2013. They piloted the system in Bailey Yard, North Platte, Nebraska, the largest rail yard in the world. The program was highly successful; it increased safety, reduced critical incidents and rule violations. The program also greatly reduced employee discipline. Other Class III and passenger rail carriers began to benefit from the system around the same time.
The program requires voluntary agreement among the rail carrier, labor and the federal government. Despite the program’s success, UP refused to renew the program, effectively killing it. SMART-TD has engaged in an ongoing effort to reintroduce the program at all Class I carriers.
We Have Only Begun to Fight
After our 17-year effort, Norfolk Southern has decided to take the lead on rail safety and this C3RS agreement shows that CEO Alan Shaw is serious in his commitment to making NS the safest railroad by partnering with rail labor. SMART-TD President Ferguson, and General Chairpersons Tommy Gholson, James Ball, David Phillips, Dan Weir and Joe Borders began making real progress with NS executives in 2023, resulting in a signed agreement on February 15, 2024.
“For years we’ve watched the successes of the several short lines that have practiced under C3RS and because of that, for years, we’ve long been advocates,” said Gholson, who was instrumental in negotiating the pilot program.
Gholson also praised the efforts of the four other general chairpersons for their roles in constructing the C3RS framework. Alt. National Legislative Director Jared Cassity provided leadership by being a facilitator in the process and coordinating with the FRA.
SMART-TD: Out in Front
In a speech soon after the agreement’s signing, SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said: “Rail labor has been out in front since the beginning. We have always advocated for the right to have a protected avenue to report safety concerns and injuries without fear of harassment, intimidation, or retribution.
“For far too long, this nation’s rail carriers have been complacent with their approach to safety. Obviously, this is something that can’t be reversed overnight, but we are hopeful that the corrective process can begin with a program like C3RS.
“There is no higher priority for SMART TD or the workers we represent than safety, not just for their own welfare but also for the communities in which they operate.”
Joint safety initiative provides employees confidential forum to report safety issues
ATLANTA and INDEPENDENCE, OH (January 29, 2024) — Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE: NSC), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD), and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), in partnership with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), announced Monday their joint participation in an FRA Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) pilot program designed to enhance railroad safety.
“NS is proud to partner with our labor leaders and FRA to make another industry-leading advancement in safety,” said Alan H. Shaw, Norfolk Southern President and CEO. “We are committed to setting the gold standard for rail safety, and we are proud to be the first Class I railroad to deliver on our promise to co-develop and launch a C3RS program.”
Under the one-year C3RS pilot, covered NS employees can report safety concerns with the certainty that such reports will not result in discipline. NASA will deidentify data and provide it for review by a joint committee of NS and labor representatives, who, with FRA’s guidance, will identify and implement corrective actions to improve safety.
“This is huge step forward for the safety of our brothers and sisters at Norfolk Southern,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson. “SMART-TD has been a long-time champion of C3RS, and this new program will allow our members to speak up when they see unsafe conditions without fear of negative repercussions. I would like to thank General Chairpersons James Ball, Joe Borders, Tommy Gholson, David Phillips, and Dan Weir for their unwavering commitment to bringing C3RS to their members.”
“It should be the goal of everyone who works in the railroad industry to continually improve safety,” said BLET National President Eddie Hall. “Providing a confidential platform to report unsafe practices allows us to harness the power of every worker’s voice. NS and its CEO, Alan Shaw, should be applauded for taking this step. I hope that this will become a model for other Class I freight railroads.” Added Hall, “I also would like to commend the leadership shown by General Chairmen Scott Bunten, Dewayne Dehart, and Jerry Sturdivant who helped make this happen by negotiating on behalf of our NS members.”
Participation in this C3RS pilot underscores NS, SMART-TD and BLET’s shared belief that collaboration and transparency are foundational pillars of an effective safety program. Key goals of the C3RS pilot program include:
Collecting currently unreported unsafe practices, behaviors, or situations;
Identifying and implementing corrective actions; and
Sharing general trends and statistics to enhance railroad safety.
Throughout the program, FRA will provide oversight, guidance, and support to the parties as they analyze safety data and work to effect positive change.
“FRA’s C3RS program provides a useful industry-wide platform to gather valuable insights from frontline railroad workers when they experience close calls – helping to uncover risks and providing opportunities for railroads and their workers to take actions to prevent serious safety incidents,” said Amit Bose, FRA Administrator. “We appreciate BLET, NS, and SMART-TD’s collaboration on this important partnership, and FRA remains committed to further expanding participation in the C3RS program to advance safety.”
About Norfolk Southern
Since 1827, Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE: NSC) and its predecessor companies have safely moved the goods and materials that drive the U.S. economy. Today, it operates a customer-centric and operations-driven freight transportation network. Committed to furthering sustainability, Norfolk Southern helps its customers avoid approximately 15 million tons of yearly carbon emissions by shipping via rail. Its dedicated team members deliver more than 7 million carloads annually, from agriculture to consumer goods, and is the largest rail shipper of auto products and metals in North America. Norfolk Southern also has the most extensive intermodal network in the eastern U.S., serving a majority of the country’s population and manufacturing base, with connections to every major container port on the Atlantic coast as well as the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. Learn more by visiting www.NorfolkSouthern.com.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen represents nearly 57,000 professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States employed in both freight and passenger rail. Founded in 1863, BLET is the oldest union in the United States. The BLET also is the founding member of the Rail Conference, International Brotherhood of Teamsters. For more information visit the union’s website at www.BLET.org.
SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. These crafts include employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, many shortline railroads, bus and mass transit employees and airport personnel. More information about the union is available at www.smart-union.org.
On August 28, the Norfolk Southern rail network’s technological infrastructure failed.
Crews couldn’t print off their pre-departure paperwork at the terminals. No one was able to report their hours of service. Many were unable to verify the consists of their trains. Emails weren’t able to be sent within the organization to organize a crisis/recovery plan, and even the crew callers were rendered useless, (insert your joke here).
However, the most dangerous side of this situation came into play when these computer issues left the crew rooms, call centers and corporate offices and made their way to the rails themselves. Dispatchers lost all control of their systems, as switches and signals were not aligning with each other or the controls of the dispatchers. Even Positive Train Control (PTC) was rendered inoperable.
It is too early to know with any degree of certainty what the cause of this systematic failure was. Unverifiable rumors have emerged on the internet, and it would be irresponsible of us to delve into them.
What we do know is that this event goes a long way to highlight the absolute necessity of the human element in railroading. As we all know, the carriers are more than happy to point out the alleged advantages of all the technology “improvements” they are bringing to the industry. If they are to be believed, their investments in computer systems have rendered our skills as railroad professionals to be nothing but a backup safety redundancy. And let’s all keep in mind they are doing everything in their power to reduce and eliminate the need for even that function, fighting tooth-and-nail against the establishment of a two-person minimum crew size in the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
Monday’s events point out that the railroads’ position couldn’t be further from reality. When the excrement hit the proverbial fan, it was the skills and professionalism of our SMART-TD conductors and engineers that prevented what had the potential to be the most widespread industrial calamity in the history of the nation. Yesterday, all the technology meant to eliminate the need for railroad professionals failed — simultaneously. As far as SMART-TD knows as of Tuesday morning, this incident was handled by our men and women without a single injury, derailment, grade-crossing collision or red signal violation.
The ramifications of this incident are terrifying, but the results are to be celebrated. It shows the world that technology is not always the end-all, be-all answer in transportation or any heavy industry. Technology failed catastrophically, putting the lives and well beings of all our NS brothers and sisters in jeopardy, and at the same time presented a massive potential threat to each and every community east of the Mississippi River with a NS track running through it.
On the flip side of that same coin, the people came through. Our members and everyone aboard an NS train proved without a doubt to be an amazing asset to these communities. The potential for disaster these crews defused is an outstanding testament to their value and the quality of work they show in their craft.
SMART-TD sees what you do every day, and you are always appreciated, but in the face of adversity yesterday you were a credit to yourselves, to our craft and to all working people. We applaud your focus, attention to safety and your well-honed railroading instincts. You should know that we will not allow NS or any other railroad to forget the lessons learned Aug. 28, 2023. Avoiding what could have been a major catastrophe will go a long way toward proving the value of conductors and engineers in every dispute we have with the corporations or government regulators for quite some time.
SMART-TD thanks you and will be updating you with any new info on the cause of yesterday’s events.
If any SMART members who work for NS have information on yesterday’s events or have details of their personal experience that might help SMART better represent our members, please reach out to our Government Affairs Department by emailing email@example.com.
As a result of last year’s national rail negotiations, some TD freight rail members have gained — for the first time — paid sick leave benefits for train and engine workers for U.S.-based carriers on the East Coast.
In late April, GO-049 Mid-Atlantic District members ratified the first agreement for freight rail operating employees to receive paid sick days.
The agreement with CSX set a historic precedent, providing for five paid sick days, adding an option to convert personal days to sick days and cashing out sick time at the end of the year.
The lack of paid sick time within the railroad industry was highlighted in the media in 2022, when workers rejected a tentative national agreement that covered most railroad carriers and labor organizations, almost leading to a shutdown of the nation’s vital supply chain.
The operating crafts (which include engineers, conductors and trainmen) have what is perceived as the most demanding of working conditions of the railroad crafts due to the travel requirements, extreme weather conditions and the on-call nature of their positions. This agreement establishes a benefit in the railroad industry that many American workers already enjoy.
In addition to paid sick time, the agreement, which covers approximately 2,400 conductors and trainmen on CSX Northern line, also adopts the current attendance policy put in place by CSX into the collective bargaining agreement. Railroads in the past have been reluctant to negotiate attendance; this is another first for the operating workforce, as it subjects the former policy (now agreement) to negotiations if any changes are desired by either the carrier or the employees in the future.
“It’s refreshing and impressive to see the overwhelming support of the membership on this tentative agreement. It is also encouraging that SMART-TD and CSX leadership were able to sit down at the table and reach a consensus on items as important as these. I am hopeful this momentum will carry forward in future negotiations and help us collectively improve the working conditions and overall morale at CSX,” General Chairperson Richard Lee said.
Two other CSX committees, GOs 513 and 851, also reached similar tentative agreements in late May.
All Norfolk Southern operating general committees have ratified an agreement and completed negotiations with the carrier gaining five paid sick days, additional financial compensation and addressing scheduling and quality-of-life concerns. Yardmasters also reached an agreement that provides paid sick time.
UP GO reaches crew-consist agreement
Out west, GO-953 ratified a crew-consist agreement, preserving the in-cab role of the conductor until national negotiations reopen. The ratified agreement provides for a substantial signing bonus, work protections and no rules changes regarding road/yard switching.
General Chairperson Luke Edington of Local 286 (North Platte, Neb.) negotiated the successful agreement with assistance from Vice General Chairperson Zach Nagy and Vice President Brent Leonard.
GO-953 has members in 48 TD locals and represents workers in Union Pacific’s Eastern, Pacific Northwest and Idaho territories (former Chicago-Northwestern Railway Co.), Kyle, Nebraska Central and Portland Terminal railroads and the Wichita Terminal Association.
Property-specific negotiations continue with BNSF and remaining segments of CSX and UP, while talks with Norfolk Southern have concluded. The SMART website will continue to be updated with the latest information about continued negotiations and the substantial gains these agreements bring to our members’ quality of life.
Five paid sick days with option to convert two personal days
Unused sick days converted to cash
Incorporates more lenient carrier attendance policy
Covers ~2,400 members
A $27,500 signing bonus upon the contract’s ratification
Continues to require the conductor’s position as being based in the cab of the locomotive
30 years of protections for brakemen/switchmen, with assignments abolished
T&E workers get five paid sick days with the option to convert up to two personal leave days to on-demand sick days
Unused personal leave days can now be carried over and accumulated indefinitely, with no limitations
Yardmasters get four paid sick days with the option to convert up to three personal leave days
During the first day of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on Norfolk Southern’s East Palestine, Ohio, derailment that happened Feb. 3, the importance of sharing information and communications in the wake of a rail disaster was brought into clear focus.
For an industry that says that data, hard evidence and the collection of information are major guiding principles for its decision-making process when people’s careers and the bottom line are at stake, the indications are carriers can do a much better job of putting first responders and everybody else in the loop when communities and lives are at stake in such a situation.
After all, it’s the train crews, fire crews, the EMS and the police in the places where accidents happen that are at risk in a disaster of the scope of East Palestine. Their resources are the ones that are expended and stressed to the limit by a billion-dollar corporation that’s passing through.
But talks of communication gaps abounded during testimony on June 22.
The crew had information responders could have used
One key commonality to many of the communication breakdowns is that the N32’s conductor was kept at arm’s length. As it was stated in the hearing, the conductor and his trainee had the train consist on the engine. Railroaders know that this document should have provided much-needed clarity to first responders as they put together their plan of attack.
In the hearing it was discussed that the railroad took hours to respond to the incident command center’s request for the consist information. They wanted this document so that they could determine if an evacuation was necessary, if so how large of an area would need to be evacuated, what chemicals were involved with the derailment, and what the proper tactics were to triage the fallout from these chemicals being on fire. All of these items and knowledge are held by the conductor, their paperwork and the Emergency Response Guide (ERG).
Ironically, the problem the command center cited as to why they didn’t have communications with the crew/conductor, is that they had separated the locomotive and moved it a mile away. They did this because they had quickly and professionally used the resources at their disposal to calculate what chemicals they were hauling and that the ERG prescribed one mile of separation from the scene. This was the correct diagnosis, and the crew figured it out quickly. As the command center scrambled and struggled to figure out what to do, the crew already had figured it out, and acted upon it.
As the employee in charge of the train consist, N32’s conductor had all the information necessary to determine the correct course of action, as well as all the contact information needed to get a hold of the shippers and manufacturers of the chemicals. This information should have directly connected the first responders to the subject matter experts. A fire chief, police officer or even the governor of Ohio had no reason to know what a conductor’s role should be in that scenario.
Norfolk Southern, however, has every reason to know that the crew was the missing link that could have closed the communication gaps that plagued the response to the disaster. With as many people and vehicles that responded to the derailment and chemical release, it’s not unreasonable to think someone could have driven the one mile to the locomotive to check the crew’s status and to obtain the consist. If nothing else, someone could have contacted them over the radio to at least ask them what they based their decision on to get the locomotive exactly one mile away from the scene. What they would have learned is that the crew’s conductor and trainee didn’t choose that distance at random and they used the exact criteria that the command center should have been consulting to determine the “one-mile” radius needed for a proper evacuation.
More communication gaps
Oxy Vinyls, the subject-matter experts of the vinyl chloride contained within the tank cars ultimately subjected to the “vent and burn,” had representatives present and available to discuss what they thought was occurring in East Palestine. Though they had an expert on-site to discuss the chemical’s components and likely behavior, much like the train’s conductor their expert was not incorporated into the central command emergency response group. They had just one brief interaction with East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick, head of the central command, as the response effort was unfolding and were directed to NS representatives.
From then on, NS and its contractor acted as a buffer between the expert from Oxy Vinyls and Chief Drabik in his role as head of the incident command center.
It wasn’t just the fire chief of the imperiled town of 4,500 who didn’t have all the information the carriers and its contractors did. The offices of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro weren’t told key bits of information that may have changed their response to resolving the situation, testimony revealed.
The day after the wreck, on Saturday, the conclusion had been reached that a “vent and burn” was the best option to proceed. The polymerization of the vinyl chloride inside a tanker was cited along with tanker damage as a motivator. Oxy Vinyls representatives in their testimony indicated that the temperature readings did not indicate that polymerization was occurring. They also gave testimony that heat alone cannot cause the polymerization feared by incident command, saying oxygen had to be present in the tank car to make that process possible. This was seemingly not the case because even though their five tank cars had been dented in the derailment, none of them had been penetrated, and the self-sealing pressure release valves were performing as intended.
The “vent and burn” that unleashed a black cloud over the small community on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border seemed over reliant on gut instincts and the field experience of the contractors paid to perform it rather than data, science and on-site resources. It also saved time — the alternative “hot tap” would have taken more time while the vent-and-burn procedure takes hours. By the contractor’s estimate, the “hot tap” solution to the problem would have taken at least five days to complete which would have been inconvenient to the goal of moving freight through southeastern Ohio.
As it happened, the positive for NS was that the “last resort” got the trains going faster while leaving a black cloud over East Palestine. From what the NS spokesman on the panel testified, the decision to conduct the “vent and burn” process was brought on by the fact that the temperature readings on one of the cars had elevated 3 degrees Fahrenheit from 135° F to 138°F.
What was pointed out in the hearing and was seemingly previously unknown to Chief Drabick was that in the time it took to prepare the five cars for the vent-and-burn procedure, the car in question was steadily dropping in temperature. By the time the vent and burn was executed, the temperature had dropped 12 degrees Fahrenheit to 126°F. This drop in temperature was 4 times the increase in temperature that triggered the decision to take that step; however, this drop in temperature was seemingly not brought to the attention of Drabick or the two involved governors.
SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, who represented our union at the hearing, asked the contractors if once they had decided to go ahead with the vent and burn if it would have been possible to backtrack in light of the information about the falling temperatures of the cars. They said that it was indeed a possibility to have changed course right up until the process was initiated.
Members of the East Palestine community who were in attendance, along with Chief Drabick himself, seemed to be confused and shocked at the answer to Cassity’s question.
Another example of gaps in the communication within the incident command was that the Ohio National Guard who was charged with the duty to determine and initiate the mandatory evacuation of the community gave testimony that it was their understanding that they were preparing the community of East Palestine for an emergency evacuation consistent with the venting and burning of a single car of chemicals. On the day of the vent and burn they found out at the 11th hour that the intent was to vent and burn five cars. All the decisions made by the Ohio National Guard on the size of the evacuation zone and the staffing to support it were already baked into the cake by the time they were made aware the plan had expanded.
Maj. Gen. John Harris, Jr. was the representative of the Guard on Thursday’s panel and gave the details of how he and the Guard were caught off guard by this pivotal piece of information.
The picture that came into focus during the testimony of how the derailment was handled and the decision made to vent and burn the material in the five tank cars of vinyl chloride was not flattering for NS and its contractors with preventable communication gaps among members of incident command resulting in a black cloud over the response tactic chosen, as well as over a community that will take years to recover.
Panel discussions 3 and 4 were held Friday, June 23, and featured discussions focused on wheel bearings, wayside defect detectors, car inspection practices, and the construction and classification of tank cars. A recap of what occurred on the second day will be published soon.
Following suit with the other General Committees of Norfolk Southern, General Chairperson Dan Weir (GO-348), and General Chairperson Joe Borders (GO-346), representing yardmasters on Norfolk Southern properties, announced that on June 2 they reached an agreement with the carrier to provide quality-of-life enhancements for all Norfolk Southern yardmasters.
NS yardmasters will be granted, effective Jan. 1, 2023, and continuing each year after, four paid sick days to be used during the calendar year with unused sick days being paid out at the end of the year. In addition to the four paid sick days, NS yardmasters will be allowed to use up to three personal leave days or single days of vacation as paid sick days after a yardmaster has exhausted the annual sick leave provided in the agreement.
To further enhance this agreement, NS yardmasters’ personal leave days, due but not taken, will be allowed to be carried over to the following year and accumulated without a cap on the number of days that can be banked. NS yardmasters in good standing or whose employment status has been terminated may elect to receive payment for all or any portion of accumulated personal leave days. In the event of the death of the yardmaster, the personal leave days accumulated will be paid to the member’s estate.
Both General Chairman Weir and Borders, along with Alternate Vice President Chris Bartz agreed early on that they would stand firm to get the best possible agreement for the yardmaster craft on Norfolk Southern regarding sick pay. After numerous negotiations, calls and deliberations, the agreement was reached.
GCs Borders and Weir thanked both SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and Alt. VP Bartz for their leadership and guidance in getting a positive agreement for the membership.
NS becomes first Class I railroad to negotiate paid sick leave for all craft railroaders
ATLANTA, and INDEPENDENCE, OH, June 5, 2023 – Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE:NSC) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) announced today that they have reached an agreement with representatives for their final group of craft employees – yardmasters – to provide up to seven paid sick days per year.
The agreement will immediately provide nearly 300 Norfolk Southern yardmasters with four new days of paid sick leave per year while also offering them the flexibility to use up to three additional days of existing paid time off as sick leave.
With this agreement, Norfolk Southern is the first Class I railroad to have negotiated paid sick leave agreements for 100 percent of its craft workforce.
“This agreement will provide our hardworking yardmasters the time they need and deserve to take care of their personal wellbeing,” said Jeremy Ferguson, President of SMART-TD. “I want to thank Norfolk Southern for their partnership on this deal, and for leading the industry as the first railroad to sign sick leave agreements for every one of our dedicated union members. And most importantly, I want to thank our SMART-TD general chairmen, Joe Borders and Dan Weir, for negotiating this important new benefit for Norfolk Southern yardmasters.”
“Following national labor negotiations, we committed to address quality of life issues for our craft railroaders. With today’s agreement, we make good on that promise,” said Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw. “I am proud of our team for working collaboratively with union leadership over the last four months to reach agreements that benefit all of our craft colleagues.”
Although this agreement is an important milestone for paid sick leave, Norfolk Southern remains actively engaged with all its labor partners to further explore and negotiate the quality-of-life benefits that will have the greatest positive impact for its employees and position Norfolk Southern as an industry leader and employer of choice.
Since 1827, Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE: NSC) and its predecessor companies have moved the goods and materials that drive the U.S. economy. Today, it operates a customer-centric and operations-driven freight transportation network. Committed to furthering sustainability, Norfolk Southern helps its customers avoid 15 million tons of yearly carbon emissions by shipping via rail. Its dedicated team members deliver more than 7 million carloads annually, from agriculture to consumer goods, and is the largest rail shipper of auto products and metals in North America. Norfolk Southern also has the most extensive intermodal network in the eastern U.S., serving a majority of the country’s population and manufacturing base, with connections to every major container port on the Atlantic coast as well as the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. Learn more by visiting www.NorfolkSouthern.com.
SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. These crafts include employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, many shortline railroads, bus and mass transit employees and airport personnel. More information about the union is available at www.smart-union.org.
On June 2, 2023, SMART Transportation Division members represented by General Committees of Adjustment GO-898, GO-687 and GO-680, have voted to ratify their tentative agreement with Norfolk Southern and will benefit from increased wages, as well as improvements to their quality of life.
Eligible members participating in the vote approved the new contract with approximately 60% in favor of ratification.
The ratified contract provides for:
Additional time off and scheduled rest days;
5 paid sick days with the option to convert up to 2 personal leave days to on-demand sick days;
Unused personal leave days can now be carried over and accumulated indefinitely, with no limitations;
More predictable scheduling process to use paid leave and vacation days;
Compensation increases beyond those already provided for via national bargaining, with shift differential pay for weekend assignments;
Continuous detention/held-away pay beginning after 15 hours, paid continuously until the on-duty time at the away-from-home terminal;
More predictable work and flexibility in time off.
General Chairpersons Tommy Gholson (GO-898), Jim Ball (GO-687), David Phillips (GO-680), Assistant General Chairpersons Andrew Evans (GO-680), Jason Roberts (GO-898) and Brian Sharkey (GO-687), along with SMART-TD Vice President Brent Leonard, negotiated the now-ratified agreement.
Following the tabulation of votes on June 2nd, General Chairperson Ball said, “This is a proud day for all of us who were involved in getting this agreement hammered out. We got our brothers and sisters more compensation, better schedules, and the dignity that comes with having paid sick days so we can take care of our families and not get our coworkers sick in the meantime.”
General Chairperson Gholson said, “These changes have been a long time coming. Our members have been screaming especially for the quality-of-life upgrades that came with this agreement, but in this industry, those improvements have to be fought for. Nothing is given. We knew that going in, and with the help of Vice President Leonard, we got our members a great deal. We want everyone involved to know that we addressed every issue we set out to address and a little more, but the fight is far from over. We have momentum, and we aren’t done advocating for the front-line workers of Norfolk Southern.”
For his part in this win, GC David Phillips said, “This agreement is historic not only for what it brings to the table for the train service crafts, but it also raised the bar to the degree that engineers will see the quality-of-life enhancements negotiated by SMART-TD. The language we worked on for five months set a pattern and a high bar that required the carrier to extend those enhancements to other crafts. As such, every member of our crew rooms are able to benefit from the fortitude of SMART-TD.
“I have worked as a SMART engineer, and speaking as a SMART engineer, it is very satisfying to see the hard work of SMART benefit those of us working in the Enginemen craft.”
Vice President Leonard was quick to recognize the hard work, professionalism, and experience that the NS general chairpersons brought to the bargaining table was the key to the success of this agreement. He said, “I want to start by congratulating the SMART-TD members of Norfolk Southern on the significant pay raises and quality of life improvements they just obtained. General Chairpersons Phillips, Gholson, and Ball deserve ample recognition for their dedication to hammering out this historic agreement. This is a big win for those General Committees and the members they represent.”
SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson’s reaction to the ratification announcement was, “The rail industry has always been built on the backs of conductors and trainmen. Our NS members and their elected representatives have stood up for themselves and demanded to be compensated both financially and with lifestyle improvements that are more in line with the importance of the work they do. I am excited to see these well-earned victories with sick days and schedule flexibility, and I am hopeful that this win for our NS brothers and sisters leads the way towards similar improvements across the industry.”
In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing on March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment” to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the accident and to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.
The committee had an all-star cast of witnesses who testified, including two U.S. senators; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who represented the community; National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw; Association of American Railroads (AAR) CEO Ian Jeffries and SMARTTD’s Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker. To begin the hearing, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance kicked off the day explaining in detail the bill, S.B. 567, they’re putting forward.
Brown began his comments by thanking the witnesses for testifying and referred directly to SLD Whitaker, calling him “an unrelenting advocate for safe working conditions for his members and all people working in Ohio railroads.”
Brown then went on to discuss why this legislation is so necessary.
“Norfolk Southern followed the Wall Street business model,” he said. “Boost profits and stock price by eliminating, over the last decade, 38% of its workforce.”
He went on to describe Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) perfectly, saying, “They cut cost to boost profits. The communities along their route be damned!”
Vance followed Brown, explaining that the intention of the bill is not to put the government in charge of day-to-day operations of America’s railroad companies (like the bill’s outspoken opponents would like the public to believe). He addressed the concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, stating plainly: “You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards in the way that you conduct your railroads. It’s a ridiculous argument, and it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Gov. DeWine followed the Buckeye State’s senators and weighed in heavily on behalf of the residents of East Palestine. He started by describing life as it was in the village of 4,700 leading up to events of Feb. 3, 2023. He walked the committee through the Norman Rockwellian Friday night where the community was keenly focused on the high school basketball game in progress until the unthinkable happened.
“Life stopped being normal for everyone in this community — it stopped feeling safe — when 38 cars of that Norfolk Southern freight train, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of hazardous materials, hurtled off the track. In an instant, life turned upside down,” he said.
DeWine went on to describe the tough questions facing residents of East Palestine revolving around their physical health as well as the viability of their community’s future. These points were driven home by witness Misti Allison. Allison, a resident of East Palestine for the last four years, was testifying in front of the Senate committee on behalf of her community. In her own words, her goal was “to put a face on this chemical disaster.”
In addition to emphasizing DeWine’s points in reference to the health concerns swirling around in East Palestine, she shared other details about a community shattered. Among the issues she brought to the committee’s attention were home equity of the residents, the viability of local businesses and the concerning contradictions in the results of various sources of environmental testing of air, water and soil samples.
The most telling and unique issue she brought to light was the still-developing mental and emotional health concerns of the community post-derailment. She pointed out the ramifications the derailment has had, especially among the youth of East Palestine, in her written testimony: “Kids are not allowed to play on the playground because it hasn’t been cleaned. So the kids now play a game they invented called ‘EVACUATION’ during recess. This train derailment has robbed our kids of their childhood, and perhaps more,” she said.
This imagery is powerful and takes the importance of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 out of the realm of financial ramifications and puts it squarely in the arena of human rights.
At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, Brother Whitaker took the stage to speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR has had on our industry from the ground level.
In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that Norfolk Southern had been ordering their crews to disregard warnings from wayside defect detectors in his state and to keep their trains rolling after receiving alerts of hot bearings.
He informed the senators that he had personally cautioned the FRA months prior to the East Palestine derailment that carriers’ business practice and adherence to the PSR doctrine was putting our crews and communities in harm’s way.
“PSR has made the Class I railroads more than $160 billion in profit since 2015 while at the same time causing the greatest degradation of safety in modern-day railroading,” he said in his written testimony. “As we have all seen in East Palestine, this cut-your-way-to-profit model is not sustainable and it is very, very dangerous.”
He further emphasized the impact of PSR on safety by talking about the current state of safety inspections of rolling stock and maintenance of equipment.
“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections. Instead, the goal is to minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether, so the trains keep moving,” he said. “Compound this with the fact that the railroads are on a determined course to grow these trains to astronomical lengths and you have a predictable outcome, and that outcome is East Palestine.”
Freight rail safety was the focus of the March 2023 episode of the Talking SMART podcast. SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and SMART-TD Government Affairs Rep. Daniel Banks joined the podcast to discuss the fight to improve freight rail safety at both the state and federal levels in the weeks following the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
The East Palestine derailment and other well-publicized accidents since have made clear what SMART-TD and rail labor have been saying for years: So-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” is bad for workers, the public and the environment.
“It speaks to the seriousness of the devastation that has been done to the railroad industry since the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading, and it speaks to the fact that our predictions are now coming into fruition. And it’s both a shame and a frustration, and – to be quite frank – a very anger-filled reaction for us,” Cassity said. “It’s shocking to see all these derailments take place. … All of these things can be brought back to Precision Scheduled Railroading and what it’s done.”
“We need to act in solidarity” on freight rail safety
Both Cassity and Banks emphasized the importance of pushing for freight rail safety regulation across the country. Federal legislation like the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 has already been introduced, along with bills in states across the country. Now, both guests said, SMART members, families and allies need to get involved and make sure the railroads and elected officials feel the pressure.
“We need the action. Today’s the day, and we need to capture the momentum – we need to act in solidarity,” Banks said, adding that members can get involved by texting “Rail Safety” to 67336 (message and data rates may apply).
“When it comes to combatting the railroads, what we need is membership engagement, membership interest, membership participation,” Cassity explained. “We need the members to win this fight … we have got to have the membership speaking, because they’re the constituents, they’re the influencers. The union is the voice of many, but we need the many voices to be speaking as one.”
At the end of this episode, SMART General President Joseph Sellers discussed what SMART is doing to recruit nonunion sheet metal workers and meet the workforce needs presented by megaprojects, infrastructure investment and more. Listen to the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.