By Susan Stevens
In Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Crazy Train,” writers John (Ozzy) Osbourne, Randy Rhoads and Robert Daisley allude to “millions of people living as foes” — and knowingly or unknowingly name the root cause of the gaping disconnect between the America that the majority of voters want and the America we have. We all want good jobs, nutritious food, clean air and water, comfortable homes, safe neighborhoods, safe and reliable transportation, a fair justice system, freedom from unmanageable debt, access to good educations and good healthcare, and personal and religious freedom.
How is it, then, that every industry impacting our lives is controlled by wealthy shareholders intent on raking in exorbitant short-term profits — profits they carry off to invest in other lucrative ventures, and scarcely invest back into increasing the quality and raising the safety standards of the businesses producing the goods and services that we depend on to feed and care for ourselves and our families and go about our daily lives? What will it take for us to realize that we share more needs, problems and interests in common with each other than differences? Must we go off the rails on this crazy train set in motion by these shareholders at their last stop on their way to the bank?
In an interview between 2024 Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and Maximillian Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief of The Real News and founder of Working People Podcast, I learned that right after the February 3, 2023 freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Norfolk Southern executives were on the phone telling stockholders not to worry, and reassuring them that it was all covered by a billion-dollar insurance policy. Those stockholders could rest easy as people within a one-mile radius were evacuated from their homes — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Ohio_train_derailment — and as the train’s cargo of hazardous materials was ignited and released into the air, and chemicals from the train also spilled into soil and water, killing an estimated 43,222 animals https://ohiodnr.gov/discover-and-learn/safety-conservation/about-ODNR/news/Train-Derailment
I also learned from this interview between Williamson and Alvarez about Norfolk Southern’s policy of cutting the operations ratio and staff costs to maximize stockholder profits through practices like running longer and longer trains — even trains nearly two miles long that workers say shouldn’t be on the tracks — with antiquated Civil War Era brakes that stop one car at a time, allowing cars at the back of an extremely long train to keep building momentum and increasing the risk of jack-knifing, rather than investing in modern braking systems which stop all the cars at once, and also practices like tasking fewer people with inspecting cars and allowing them less time to get it done. https://youtu.be/D4Z9dfu4FuA
In an interview between Marianne Williamson and Railroad Workers United co-founder Matt Weaver, I learned that the same corporate establishment that recently compelled pro-union President Joe Biden to force rail workers to accept a labor contract that was unacceptable to the majority of unionized rail workers, also did not care to learn from the workers on the ground, who know what it takes to operate trains safely. Weaver said, “There’s been an absurd business model of precision-scheduled railroading, which focuses — you know, direct focus — on profit margins and the shareholders, and it’s led to, in the last 10 years, a cut of 30% of rail labor, so we don’t have the manpower to work on infrastructure, inspect the cars, things like that — and what happened in East Palestine was a wheel bearing failure from what the NTSB tells us, and perhaps longer times or more men from the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen to inspect those cars would have led to them discovering this failure.” Weaver later added, “The NTSB said it was 100% preventable.” https://youtu.be/8mrQjHZvy7o
In her testimony to the Senate about the February 3 Norfolk Southern derailment, East Palestine resident and member of Moms Clean Air Force Misti Allison says, “We now know that train carried multiple toxic petrochemicals. When authorities conducted a ‘controlled burn,’ it was like a bomb went off — a bomb containing vinyl chloride, which releases dangerous chemicals. When burned, these chemicals never go away — chemicals such as dioxins, which are not safe at any level, and cause damage that may not show up for years. Two days later, our government told us it was safe to come home — but is it safe?”
“People and animals in my community are sick. The EPA tells us the data is fine, while independent researchers tell us there are high levels of carcinogens all around us. Who do we trust? And then there’s our mental health. The anxiety is real. My seven-year-old has asked me if he is going to die from staying in his own home. What do I tell him?”
As Norfolk Southern stockholders rest assured that their billions in profits are safe, Allison goes on to detail her town’s new economic landscape: “This preventable accident has put a scarlet letter on our town. Businesses are struggling. Property values are plummeting. Even if we wanted to leave, we couldn’t. Who would buy our homes?” She details the risk-landscape for the predominantly poor and working class communities where the railroads operate all over this country: “There were over a thousand train derailments last year, and the expansion of the petrochemical industry means that more trains carrying toxic chemicals will put more families at risk.” https://youtu.be/7c9RDAiN7u0
America’s once-famous customer service culture was the product of what seemed to be a more people-friendly capitalism that respected the customer’s right to do business with those companies providing the best product or service at the best price, accompanied by the best customer experience. While businesses have always had the goal of making money, there was previously no way to separate profits from satisfied customers and good standing in the community where one did business.
With the emergence of large corporations, and continual mergers in which there are fewer different businesses offering needed services, and fewer locally-owned businesses, it’s now increasingly possible for stockholders to reap tremendous profits with no need to concern themselves about what customers want. As Maximillian Alvarez pointed out in his above mentioned interview on East Palestine with Williamson, rail companies have, over time, kept merging till what we now have is “an oligopoly of a few companies that don’t compete with each other.”
In an article by Alvarez published in The Real News on April 26 — titled “US freight workers say it’s time to nationalize the railroads” — featuring a discussion between Alvarez, journalist and professor Kari Lyderson, and former Railroad Workers United General Secretary Ron Kaminow, I learned from Lyderson that the rail companies’ rising profits have been accompanied by a scaling back of service and a reduction of staff, and rising dissatisfaction on the part of both workers and customers, with customers being the shippers, and ultimately, the end customers waiting on the goods. https://therealnews.com/us-freight-workers-say-its-time-to-nationalize-the-railroads
We the American people are increasingly struggling to obtain our necessary resources within the amoral shell of a capitalism that has been sucked dry of the one (maybe at least partially) redeeming former capitalist value — the competition for customer loyalty. Now the only esteemed customer “who’s always right” is the wealthy shareholder, who’s far removed from the ordinary concerns of ordinary people.
In my own poor and working-class community of Kansas City, Kansas, some of us are still wondering about possible long-term effects on air quality due to a fire that broke out at a local recycling plant — Advantage Metals — on May 19. Beto Lugo Martinez, co-executive director of local environmental justice organization CleanAirNow told reporters that it was his team that notified the EPA of the fire — not our local government agencies. KCUR reports: ‘He sees the lack of preparedness, and the overabundance of industrial plants in Kansas City, Kansas, as an example of environmental racism that puts its residents in Wyandotte County — who are typically more diverse and working-class — at risk of disasters like the fire.‘
‘“Johnson County is more prepared — it is a more affluent community as well,” Lugo Martinez said. “It continues to show the inequitable distribution of resources that are available to communities of color, communities on the fence lines of dangerous chemical facilities … A more affluent community would not have a chemical facility in their neighborhood.”‘ https://www.kcur.org/news/2023-05-19/kansas-city-smoke-fire-recycling-plant-johnson-county
I learned from the IncFact website that Advantage Metals makes annual revenues of $10 to $50 million per year. https://incfact.com/company/advantagemetalsrecycling-kansascity-mo/ Then I learned from Investopedia that private companies in the US are not required to make their balance sheets available to the public. This is bad when it’s a company whose poor management can harm the public, such as a railroad or recycling company. We can’t know whether they’re investing enough of their profits back in, to make updates and take good care of staff so that there’s less chance of accidents. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/062415/private-company-required-disclose-financial-information-public.asp
As social democrats, it’s up to us to campaign for candidates who amplify the voices of workers on the ground in every industry, and push for policies that empower the communities most impacted by industrial operations. We the 99% must stop living as foes: it’s the only way to get this train carrying the precious cargo of our lives and our children’s lives re-set onto a sustainable track.
Susan Stevens is the Chair of the Kansas City, Kansas branch of SDUSA.