by Jake Johnson
An inter-union alliance of rail workers argued Tuesday that the massive freight train crash in East Palestine, Ohio late last week was a predictable consequence of Wall Street-backed policy decisions that have hollowed out the industry’s workforce, pushed remaining employees to chronic exhaustion, and sacrificed safety for profits.
In an assessment of the Norfolk Southern (NS) train derailment based on currently available information, Railroad Workers United (RWU) wrote that “the root causes of this wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund-initiated operating model known as ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading’ (PSR).”
The group noted that the “immediate cause” of the wreck “appears to have been a 19th-century-style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars—an overheated bearing—leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars.”
“There is no way in the 21st century, save from a combination of incompetence and disregard to public safety, that such a defect should still be threatening our communities,” wrote RWU, which supports nationalization of the U.S. rail system.
“Forty percent of the weight of NS 32N was grouped at the rear third of the train, which has always been bad practice and made more dangerous with longer heavier trains,” the statement continued. “This fact almost certainly made the wreck dynamically worse. But increasingly the PSR-driven carriers, driven to cut costs and crew time by any means necessary, cut corners and leave crews and the public at risk.”
According to RWU, “The short-term profit imperative, the so-called ‘cult of the Operating Ratio’—of NS and the other Class 1 railroads—has made cutting costs, employees, procedures, and resources the top priority. In this case, NS and the other carriers have eliminated many of the critical mechanical positions and locations necessary to guarantee protection against these kinds of failures.”
The crash in Ohio “has been years in the making,” the group added. “What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen. But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature.”
Matthew Jinoo Buck, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, explained in The American Prospect last year that “using PSR, railroad management’s job is to drive down the ‘operating ratio,’ or operating expenses as a percentage of revenue.”
“In other words, Wall Street judges railroads’ success based in part on spending less money running the railroad and more on stock buybacks or dividends,” Buck wrote. “Theoretically, focusing on lowering operating ratios pushes railroads to be more efficient, to do more with less. But when railroads have the market power they have today, they can instead ‘do less with less,’ as shippers and workers put it.”
Norfolk Southern, the product of a merger between Norfolk and Western Railway and Southern Railway, appears to have followed that model closely.
The company announced a $10 billion stock buyback program last March and has consistently raised its dividend, rewarding shareholders while refusing to provide its workers with basic benefits such as paid sick leave.
For the full year of 2022, Norfolk Southern reported record-breaking operating revenues of $12.7 billion.
As Buck wrote last year, “The driving force behind PSR’s widespread adoption was railroad executive E. Hunter Harrison and investor Bill Ackman, a notorious hedge fund manager.”
“After the two pushed through PSR at the Canadian Pacific railroad, Ackman’s colleague Paul Hilal opened an investment fund called Mantle Ridge, which invested $1.2 billion in CSX and successfully pushed CSX to appoint Harrison CEO,” he continued. “Under Harrison, and with the backing of CSX’s board, who saw larger bottom lines in sight, CSX pushed through PSR despite complaints from shippers who reported long delays or lost shipments. Every other railroad has adopted PSR or PSR equivalents; industry watchers say the one holdout yet to officially adopt PSR, BNSF, has adopted PSR-like measures.”
The crash in Ohio late Friday forced many local residents to evacuate to escape a possible explosion and the release of toxic fumes from the train cars, several of which were carrying vinyl chloride.
RWU said Tuesday that while many people in the area “were and remain evacuated, and property damage to both rail and non-railroad property will no doubt soar into the millions, we dodged a bullet as no rail workers and no trackside residents were killed.”
“This time,” the group added.
Defend the Postal Service, Defend Good Jobs for Black Workers
by Sarah Anderson
Postal jobs have long been a road to the middle-class for Black Americans. The Postal Service began employing Black workers shortly after the Civil War and became a major source of good, middle-class jobs for this share of the workforce in the early 20th century.
During the 1940s, civil rights advocacy, combined with wartime needs, created even more opportunities for Black postal workers. By the mid-1960s, their leadership had increased significantly, with the three biggest post offices in the country—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—all headed by Black postmasters. By the end of the 20th century, Black employees made up 21 percent of the U.S. postal workforce.
In 2022, Black workers made up 29.0 percent of the Postal Service workforce—more than double their 12.6 percent share of the total U.S. labor force. According to Institute for Policy Studies analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, postal workers have by far the highest median annual wage ($51,730) and the highest median hourly wage ($24.87) among the 10 occupations with the heaviest representation of Black workers.
Three of these 10 occupations have median hourly wages below $15 per hour. Of the 10 occupations with the largest shares of Black workers, USPS was the fifth-largest employer, with more than 600,000 employees.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that the wage gap between white and Black workers is narrower among postal workers than among private sector employees. The Economic Policy Institute has found that Black workers’ share of USPS jobs is significantly higher than their share of all public sector jobs.
The Postal Service faces constant pressure to make deep spending cuts that would be devastating for customers and employees across the country. Instead of cutbacks that could drive away customers, decisionmakers should explore new revenue sources, particularly those that would help meet important social needs, such as postal banking.
Black families would benefit significantly from expanded postal financial services. According to an FDIC survey, 11.3 percent of all Black households and 9.3 percent of Latino households did not have bank accounts in 2021, compared to just 2.1 percent of white households.
Among households with income between $15,000 and $30,000, 29.3 percent of Black households and 26.5 percent of Hispanic households were unbanked, compared with 13.6 percent of White households. Single mothers and adults with disabilities were also more likely than other Americans to be “unbanked.”
Families without bank accounts are much more likely to have to use high-cost financial services. For example, 21.8 percent of unbanked households used check cashing—almost 10 times the share of banked households that use such services. And 15.5 percent used money transfer services, more than double the 6.6 percent share of banked households that use these services.
Among all families without bank accounts, the most-cited reason was that they couldn’t afford minimum balance requirements. Other major reasons included distrust of banks, high and unpredictable fees, and inconvenient locations. A 2019 S&P Global report found that majority Black neighborhoods have lost more bank branches than non-majority-Black neighborhoods. JPMorgan, for example, reduced the number of branches in majority-Black areas by 22.8 percent from 2010 to 2018, compared to a decline of 0.2 percent in the rest of the country.
With more than 31,000 post offices across the country and a high level of public trust, USPS is well-positioned to provide dependable, affordable financial services. According to a 2015 USPS Office of Inspector General report, expanding postal financial services such as check-cashing, ATMs, and electronic money orders could generate as much as $1.1 billion in annual revenue.
Members of Congress have introduced legislation for two approaches to expanded postal financial services. These include a Treasury-backed savings system at the post office similar to what existed in the United States from 1911 to 1967 and individual FedAccounts accessible through local post offices in conjunction with the Federal Reserve.
These proposals would provide reliable, affordable alternatives to predatory financial firms. They could also facilitate distribution of federal stimulus checks. Every community across the United States benefits from a strong USPS.
Rather than weakening this vital public infrastructure, policymakers should focus on strengthening—and expanding—this service to meet 21st century needs.
Sarah Anderson [posting at @SarahDAnderson1 on Twitter] directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic Welcomes You
by Abby Zimet
Exquisitely merging their sacrosanct tenets – reproductive rights, church/state separation, the freedom to offend and artful devil’s advocacy – The Satanic Temple is opening a “religious abortion clinic” to offer free, virtual, medication abortion to “involuntarily pregnant women” who need it. The “non-theistic” group, with “Satanic good works” from food drives to After-School Satan Clubs, named the clinic for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s mother.
Based in Salem, Mass., the Satanic Temple is somewhat of a baroque misnomer. Co-founded a decade ago by social activists Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, TST is a non-theistic group that seeks to “encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, oppose injustice and undertake noble pursuits” while remaining faith-based enough to qualify for federal protections and benefits afforded religious organizations – just without the deity part. While they “don’t have any supernatural beliefs,” they argue the Satanic label is more than just a political ploy; it “provides a metaphorical narrative construct by which we contextualize our values,” and renders them “every bit of a religion in that religion and the privileges and exemptions that come with it shouldn’t be the exclusive rights of superstition.” To date, they’ve been most visible righteously advocating to enforce the sometimes-waning separation of church and state: In one campaign, they erected a bronze statue of the god Baphomet outside the Arkansas State Capitol after lawmakers put up a Ten Commandments statue there, prompting horrified Christian groups to protest with hymns and signs reading, “Let Them Offend Our Lord No More.”
Along with “Satanic Good Works” – diaper drives, clothes pantries, beach clean-ups – they offer several school-based programs focused on science, free inquiry and critical thinking. Their After-School Satan Clubs (“Educatin’ With Satan”) for elementary kids seek to counter “Good News Clubs” set up by Evangelical Christians at schools that “use threats of eternal damnation to convert children to their belief system.” “Proselytization is not our goal, and we’re not interested in converting children to Satanism,” says Greaves. “We prefer to give children an appreciation of the natural wonders surrounding them, not a fear of everlasting other-worldly horrors.” Citing a 2001 SCOTUS ruling on school club inclusiveness, they’ve applied to set up Satanic shop in nine schools; despite their dearth of lamb’s blood ceremonies, they’ve only been approved for one in Portland, Ore, but are now suing a Pennsylvania school board that turned them down. They also advocate to protect young mental health patients; they offer Devil’s Advocate scholarships – $666 – to kids who show “how compulsory schooling has dampened their creativity”; they have t-shirts, posters, an annual SatanCom; and they’re featured in a well-received documentary, Hail Satan?: “In the battle for justice and equality, The Satanic Temple is putting up a hell of a fight.”
Now, after years of supporting bodily autonomy and suing to block anti-abortion laws in Idaho, Indiana, Texas’ Heartbeat Act, they’re launching the first TST Health online abortion clinic Feb. 14 in New Mexico, where abortion remains largely legal, amidst a surge of anti-abortion laws and rabid rhetoric about “pre-born babies” and a “pro-life war” against “pro-death forces.” Battling “reproductive laws that violate our religious conscience (and) necessary health and safety standards,” they claim abortion as an “essential part of a religious practice” protected by the First Amendment and state religious freedom laws. Their clinic will provide free telehealth consultation with licensed medical staff, followed by a scrip for pills “discreetly” sent by mail, to women medically eligible for but lacking access to abortion; in return, the women must perform a “religious abortion ritual” of reciting a modest Satanic affirmation like, “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.” TST hopes to launch clinics in several more states. Their first facility really will be named “The Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic,” to remind us what’s at stake.
“Prior to 1973, doctors who performed abortions could lose their licenses and go to jail,” says Jarry. “In 1950, Samuel Alito’s mother did not have options, and look what happened.”
Holy hell, we wish them well.