Spartacist Canada No. 185
Bosses Frame Up Unionists for Lac-Mégantic Disaster
Defend USW Rail Workers!
In the early hours of July 6, 2013 a horrific explosion ripped through the heart of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, incinerating 47 people. The apocalyptic fireball was ignited after multiple failures in an engine and the braking system of an unattended train caused 72 tank cars loaded with 7.7 million litres of highly volatile crude oil to roll down a steep hill and violently derail. Much of the town centre was destroyed and vast amounts of toxic oil spilled into the adjacent lake. It took firefighters days to bring the hellish scene under control and recover whatever remained of the victims. As we said at the time:
“This tragedy was no accident. It was shaped by money-pinching cutbacks, layoffs and criminal neglect by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) rail company, owned by Edward Burkhardt’s Rail World of Chicago. It also arose ineluctably from the drive for profits by the huge Canadian railway conglomerates, and was aided and abetted by the federal government’s gutting of safety regulations at the behest of these same rail bosses.”
—“Lac-Mégantic Industrial Murder,” SC No. 178, Fall 2013
If Lac-Mégantic has become a byword for devastation and death in the name of profit, it is now also a stark example of the capitalists’ system of justice—for their class. The MMA owner quickly blamed the tragedy on the train’s engineer, Tom Harding, a veteran of more than 30 years in the industry and member of the United Steelworkers (USW). Few people bought this self-serving accusation, least of all the survivors in Lac-Mégantic, who were long aware of the company’s blatant disregard for public safety. When Burkhardt descended on the town a few days after the crash, the mother of a woman killed in the inferno denounced him as “a reckless man” who “played—and he is still playing—with people’s lives.” A man who lost three relatives called him “the assassin.”
Yet it is MMA workers, not Burkhardt, who are being targeted by the cops and courts. On May 12, 2014 Quebec provincial police arrested Tom Harding along with another USW member, traffic controller Richard Labrie. Also arrested was an MMA operations manager, Jean Demaître. Each faces 47 charges of “criminal negligence causing death,” potentially leading to life in prison. As if to underline the political nature of this persecution, an armed SWAT team with sirens blaring was sent to arrest Harding, who was with his son in the backyard of his home in Farnham, Quebec. The next day Harding, Labrie and the MMA manager were ostentatiously perp-walked to a Lac-Mégantic court hearing in handcuffs. “It’s not them we want!” yelled Ghislain Champagne, whose 36-year-old daughter Karine died in the disaster. “The boss” should be the one in handcuffs, he added.
Despite their lawyers’ efforts to have the whole outrageous frame-up thrown out, Harding and Labrie continue to face vicious retribution from the courts. On September 8 a trial date will be set. The USW has established a legal defense fund for the two rail unionists, which as of January had raised nearly $200,000, mainly from union locals throughout Quebec. Unions and class-conscious workers everywhere should take up the cause of these victimized workers. Drop the charges against Harding and Labrie!
Tom Harding: A Hero, Not a Criminal!
There was “criminal negligence” in this disaster alright, but it wasn’t on the part of the workers. Harding was the sole operator on the MMA train thanks to the company’s dangerous policy of one-man operations, a cost-cutting measure that had been approved by the federal government. Some of the tracks leading to Lac-Mégantic were in such bad shape that operators had been instructed to slow to as little as five miles an hour. On ending his gruelling 12-hour shift, Harding reported to a rail traffic controller that there had been problems with smoke from a poorly maintained engine. He activated the braking system in the main locomotive, applied seven supplementary handbrakes, then left to rest for the night.
Sometime before midnight firefighters were called to extinguish a fire that had broken out in the same engine. Lacking protocols from the company, they shut down the locomotive—without informing Harding. This caused the train’s air-brake system to turn off. Soon thereafter, the unmanned, unmonitored train began its fatal roll toward the town. Awakened when his hotel was evacuated, Harding heroically rushed to the scene to help battle flames and secure unexploded tankers. Recordings of conversations between the engineer and controller show that he did not learn that it was the MMA train that had exploded until nearly two hours later.
As the handcuffed workers were marched to the court hearing, USW Quebec director Daniel Roy said bitterly: “One would think we’re in antiquity, when a dictator brought the accused to the stake in front of everyone” (La Presse, 13 May 2014). Roy continued:
“Tom Harding wasn’t in the train when it arrived. His train was stopped in a nearby village with the agreement and permission of his employer and Transport Canada. He was only respecting the rules….
“It’s not Mr. Harding who’s responsible for the bad state of the railways. It’s not Mr. Harding who’s at fault for the state of the bridges that the trains pass over. It’s certainly not the fault of Tom Harding and the MMA employees that oil is being transported everywhere in the cities of Quebec.
“It’s the federal government that’s really responsible, with its deregulation and abandonment of railways to little companies like MMA. To see the Minister of Transportation welcome the arrest of the workers is unbelievable.”
Capitalist Class Justice
At the heart of the Lac-Mégantic disaster is the naked pursuit of profit that drives the capitalist system. Serving the interests of a tiny handful of businessmen and financiers, this system is based on the exploitation of the working class in the factories, transport systems and mines. By constantly slashing jobs, gutting or ignoring basic safety measures and allowing crucial infrastructure to deteriorate—all in the name of higher profits—capitalism is a deadly threat to the well-being of the working people, indeed to just about everyone.
Events have unfolded as one would expect. Soon after the derailment, MMA secured its assets through bankruptcy protection, selling most of them off to a New York investment group. Meanwhile, the enablers of the disaster in Ottawa have disclaimed all responsibility while the Quebec government is overseeing the witchhunt against Harding and Labrie. Outrageously, prosecutors announced earlier this year that they intended to waive the standard preliminary hearing and move directly to trial. This unusual ploy sharply reduces the ability of the accused to prepare their defense by examining the prosecutors’ evidence.
The class “justice” being dispensed here shows with exceptional clarity the nature of the capitalist state: the cops, courts and prisons as well as the standing army. Nearly 150 years ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained that, far from being a neutral arbiter of social conflict, this state serves as the rulers’ armed fist against the working class. Ever since workers first began to organize in their own defense, the struggle for their rights has had to run the gauntlet of laws designed to protect the interests of capital and the cops and courts who enforce them.
To the rail bosses, lives snuffed out in industrial accidents are little more than collateral damage: a side-note to the gold-rush profits being reaped in repurposing traditional freight lines as “rail pipelines” for oil. Often a kilometre or more in length, trains loaded with volatile crude are pushed to the capacities (and beyond) of aging, decrepit engines and shoddily-designed, corroded tank cars. The dangerous cargos—effectively rolling bombs—are run at the maximum possible speeds over crumbling and overgrown rail beds, including through densely populated cities and towns. This was the business model for MMA, relying on Transport Canada’s acquiescence to maximizing loads while gutting maintenance, crew levels and safety measures. And the story is more or less the same for rail giants like Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.
Safety measures, like raw materials and equipment, are inevitably an entry in the “loss” column of the capitalists’ balance sheet. Workers are also, by the bosses’ reckoning, replaceable. Given the dramatic boom in rail shipment of fossil fuels (from 3.8 million metric tonnes in 2010 to a staggering 55 million today) and the accompanying pattern of explosions, derailments and other “accidents waiting to happen,” it’s only by fluke that the loss of life has not been far greater. From 2011 to 2013, the number of oil-train accidents reported in Canada soared from eight to 56. Earlier this year, a single isolated region of Northern Ontario saw two derailments of CN oil trains in less than a month, causing explosions and fires that lasted nearly a week.
Meanwhile the oil and rail companies, well represented at all levels of government, ensure that new regulations, including desperately needed compulsory technical upgrades and inspection regimes, are minimized or pushed back indefinitely. The government has frozen the number of Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) inspectors for more than a decade. In 2009, the ratio of inspectors to oil carloads was one to 14. By 2013 this had skyrocketed to one to 4,500. The entire annual budget of the TDG division is $14 million. By way of comparison, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, personally hauled in $49 million in 2012 alone.
For the government, safety regulations are just so much “red tape.” Ottawa and Washington recently announced new joint “guidelines” for reinforced rail tank cars, which are supposed to be phased in by 2025—ten years from now! Even then, the Harper government refused to mandate electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on tank cars, which can substantially reduce the risk of devastating accordion-like collisions.
Those Who Labour Must Rule
Fossil fuels remain vital to produce the goods and services needed for a modern industrial society. They need to be transported safely and efficiently. Current technology has made it possible to greatly reduce the risks in carrying hazardous materials, but this cuts into profits and is thus resisted and undermined by the capitalists. As in other dangerous industries like mining, the only way to establish and enforce safety in the rail industry is by mobilizing labour’s social power. Workers must be able to shut down unsafe equipment and operations with the full backing of the unions. A fight for higher manning levels, from the cabs to the maintenance crews, as well as a shorter workweek at no loss in pay, would not only open up more jobs: they could literally be a question of life and death.
Our earlier article on the Lac-Mégantic disaster noted: “A single winning Canada-wide rail strike would do vastly more for safety than tens of thousands of pages of Transportation Safety Board recommendations!” The capitalists and their governments have long recognized the potential power of the transport unions to interrupt commerce and choke off the broader flow of profits. That’s why they regularly take measures to curtail rail workers’ ability to strike. In 2012 and again this year, the Harper Tories moved to break strikes by several thousand CP engineers, conductors and others organized by the Teamsters. Safety, specifically fatigue from overwork, was a major issue in this year’s strike.
Faced with Ottawa’s strikebreaking threats, the Teamsters bureaucrats ended the strike after less than 48 hours in favour of binding arbitration. This is all too typical of today’s labour leaders, who substitute for the class struggle a policy of seeking “partnership” with the bosses. The union movement in this country was built through militant struggles that often defied anti-union laws and faced down attacks by strikebreakers and cops. The labour tops’ policy of class collaboration has led to defeat after defeat and demoralized the membership.
Most of the union bureaucracy, including in the USW, claim the solution is to elect NDP governments. But the NDP social democrats rule for the bosses whenever they get the chance, including by breaking strikes (as in B.C. in the 1970s). So does the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois, long favoured by the Quebec Steelworkers bureaucrats. The USW’s leaders’ fealty to the capitalist order is captured by the fact that nearly a quarter of the union’s entire Quebec membership consists of security guards, adjuncts to the police who should have no place in labour’s ranks.
For the unions to effectively champion the interests of their members, a new, class-struggle leadership must be forged. Such a leadership, recognizing that the interests of workers are counterposed to those of the exploiters, would rely on the social power of the workers themselves, not the agencies and representatives of the enemy class. Uniting all rail workers in joint action would maximize that power and go a long way toward breaking down craft divisions, paving the way for forming one industrial rail union.
The Lac-Mégantic disaster shows the irrationality of organizing something as essential to society as railways on a for-profit basis. This can be seen in each layer of its causation: from the underserviced, fire-prone engine and the antiquated, hand-cranked pressure brake system that failed, to the decrepit rail infrastructure facilitated by government deregulation, to the bosses’ single-minded avarice enabled by complicity of the union tops, to the anarchy of the global market for fossil fuels.
Under capitalism, workers have to sell their labour power to the exploiters in order to survive. At the same time, the millions-strong working class holds concentrated in its hands the physical and technological apparatus that makes society run. Under the leadership of a revolutionary workers party, the social power of this class can be unleashed to overthrow the rule of capital. When those who labour run society, we will be able to marshal the wealth and productive forces to rebuild the crumbling railways, bridges, highways and factories, to build decent housing and schools, and to open the road to an egalitarian socialist future.
Donate to Legal Defense
To contribute to the legal defense of Tom Harding and Richard Labrie, write to: Syndicat des Métallos, 565 boulevard Crémazie est, Bureau 5100, Montreal QC H2M 2V8. Cheques should be made out to “Syndicat des Métallos” with “Justice for USW rail workers” noted on the cheque. Contributions can also be made by credit card at www.justice4USWrailworkers.org.