Amid Ohio train disaster, labor and environmentalists need to unite

East Palestine, Ohio, chemical train crash on February 3, 2023.

After the toxic train disaster in Ohio, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said, “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white and it’s politically conservative. That shouldn’t be relevant but … it very much is. Imagine if this happened in, well, the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit. In both cases, had it affected the rich or the favored poor, it would be the lead of every news channel in the world.”

Media Matters, a progressive web-based research group monitoring rightwing misinformation, said several other rightwing commentators on Fox and other similar outfits also claimed that those “favored poor” get all the breaks. Wink wink. Some were more explicit. Turning Point USA founder and radio talk show host Charlie Kirk yelped about a “war on white people” waged by the “Biden regime,” which is allowing the “poisoning” of “citizens of eastern Ohio.”

Researchers Ruby Seavey and Payton Armstrong of Media Matters say this is wrong. They note that the “inadequate coverage [of the East Palestine disaster] reflects a pattern Media Matters has consistently documented: The media’s coverage of environmental and public health crises — particularly when they affect communities of color — is frequently poor, both in quantity and quality.”

They say the rightwing media’s assertion that “the government’s poor response is because residents are white conservatives is unsupported and nonsensical. In fact, mounting evidence suggests that white people receive more aid from the federal government than people of color following disasters.”

In this year alone, more than a dozen train derailments had already taken place in America before the East Palestine disaster. There have been several more since. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there’s an average of 1,705 train derailments every year, with 54,570 occurring between 1990 to 2021. 

For years, railroad workers have tried to get the nation’s attention. The Biden administration’s slow response to the disaster created an opportunity for the GOP to exploit the situation to demonstrate that they are the “party of the working class.”

Donald Trump showed up and distributed his magical MAGA hats and Trump-branded water. He denounced Biden and proclaimed, “What this community needs now are not excuses … but answers and results.” 

This was beyond shameless given Trump’s anti-environment and anti-worker record. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch commented: “If residents of East Palestine — a modern news desert of downsized or disappeared news sources, which allows misinformation to fester — truly knew the reality, a delegation of townsfolk would likely greet Trump with tiki torches and pitchforks.” He compared the former president’s visit to “the tendency of a criminal to return to the scene of his crime.”

Bunch added, “Trump acted specifically to sabotage a nascent government effort to protect citizens from the growing threat posed by derailments of outdated, poorly equipped, and undermanned freight trains that were increasingly shipping both highly flammable crude oil from the U.S. fracking boom as well as toxic chemicals like the ones that would derail in East Palestine.”

The big rail carriers donated more than $6 million to Republican candidates in 2016 and spent millions more on lobbying.

Trump quickly killed a number of rule changes initiated by the Obama administration. These included a requirement that freight trains upgrade current braking technology that originated in the Civil War era, a ban on transporting liquified natural gas by rail (to prevent explosions), and a rule specifying at least two crew members operate freight trains.

The Biden administration hasn’t moved to reinstate these rule changes. Biden blocked a proposed strike by railroad workers who wanted paid sick leave and other crucial workplace improvements. We were told that such a strike could seriously disrupt the economy. If that is true, shouldn’t we consider nationalizing the railroads? That’s what is proposed by Railroad Workers United, an inter-union solidarity caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers championing worker and community safety. 

Progressive Democrats pushed for paid sick leave for railroad workers but lost. Democrats won’t be able to pass anything through the Republican-controlled House. However, progressive Democrats could push Biden for executive actions and also embarrass the Republicans over their bombastic phony, populism.

This is an opportunity to build a powerful coalition of labor unions and environmentalists. The Labor Network for Sustainability urges “bold climate action in ways that address labor concerns without sacrificing what science is telling us is necessary, and what’s needed to address income inequality and worker power.” Seize the time!

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here