Another Norfolk Southern train came off the tracks just as CEO refused to commit to seven paid sick days

Workers claim that overworking and lack of paid sick leave is causing worker error malfunctions such as train derailments. The rail CEO has refused to act

March 10, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies in front of the US Senate

Alan Shaw, CEO of rail giant Norfolk Southern which was responsible for a catastrophic train derailment earlier this year in Ohio, continues to be in the hot seat. On March 9, Shaw was grilled by US Senators, including self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, regarding the derailment. Notably, Shaw was asked if he would give workers more sick leave and end the policy of overworking rail employees to prevent disasters like Ohio. He deflected both questions. Shaw also declined to commit to paying long-term healthcare costs of residents who may have been poisoned from the disaster.

Workers nearly went on an economy-shattering strike last year (before being stripped of this right by Congress) due to overworking and a lack of sick leave. Rail workers have consistently said that the corporate policy of cutting costs through eliminating sick leave and understaffing could lead to disaster in such a dangerous profession. These concerns were validated after the Ohio derailment in East Palestine, which some have dubbed Ohio’s Chernobyl.

Norfolk Southern rail workers had zero paid sick days at the time of the derailment, but the corporation has since partially given in on sick days following worker pressure and bad publicity due to the disaster. Sanders asked Shaw on Thursday if he would agree to give all of his workers seven paid sick days, which unionized workers and progressives in Congress have been fighting for for months. 

Shaw continuously deflected. Shaw mentioned that he had made a recent agreement with employees that raised wages, although sick days, not pay, has been the consistent central demand of rail workers. Sanders continued to push him, to which Shaw responded, “I will commit to continuing to discuss with [workers] important quality of life issues with our local craft colleagues.”

“With all due respect, you sound like a politician,” Sanders responded.

Sanders also asked Shaw if he would be the first in the railroad industry to end Precision Scheduled Railroading, a cost-cutting policy despised by rail employees for forcing fewer workers to do the work of many. The catch is that this policy, like many cost-cutting policies across industries, has generated enormous profits for rail companies. Will Shaw risk a slow-down in profits to protect the lives of workers inside and outside the rail industry? The answer, it appears, is no

Shaw responded to Sanders regarding PSR, saying, “Senator, I understand your concern, and I share that concern.” 

“Senator, in December of last year, I charted a new course in the industry, and I said we’re gonna move away from a near-term focus solely on profits, and that we’re gonna take a longer term view,” Shaw later said. Shaw did not once commit to ending PSR.

When asked directly about commiting to pay the long-term healthcare costs of East Palestine residents who may have been poisoned from the disaster, Shaw also deflected. “I’m committed to doing what’s right,” Shaw said. “We’re going to be there today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.”

Sanders pushed on this issue as well, to which Shaw repeated vaguely, “we’re going to do what’s right.”

“What’s right is to cover their healthcare needs, will you do that?” Sanders pressed.

Shaw replied, “Everything is on the table, sir.” 

As Shaw was answering questions, the second Norfolk Southern train since the East Palestine disaster derailed in Alabama. 30 cars came off the tracks and there have been no reports of injuries or hazardous materials being released from the crash. This most recent derailment comes after another Norfolk Southern train derailed on Saturday, March 4, near Springfield, Ohio. 28 cars out of 212 derailed. “The only thing that saved Ohioans from another disaster was luck,” said US Senator Sherrod Brown, as some of the cars which did not derail were carrying hazardous material.

Norfolk Southern as a company has recently come under increased scrutiny following the East Palestine derailment, however, it is not an outlier in the rail industry. The industry spends millions each year to lobby against pesky safety regulations which could cut into profits, and Norfolk Southern is only one of many large rail carriers that employs PSR. In response to a rotten industry, rail workers have called for a nationalization of railroads in the US.