Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
June 28, 2009

Financial/Transit Crisis Turns Deadly
It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Nine dead, eighty injured when one Metro train rear-ended another in Washington Monday. The DC Metro is fully equipped with computerized Automatic Train Control designed to prevent such catastrophe.

One thing I learned driving a bus for fourteen years is that the reflex response in transit management to any accident is to blame the operator. The operator of the moving train could not defend herself–she was fatality one. Fully prepared to speak ill of the dead an anonymous management source told the Washington Post the night of the tragedy,

“It doesn't look like she hit the brakes,’ said a train safety expert, who asked not to be identified because the crash is under investigation. ‘That's why you have an operator in the cab. She should have been able to take action. That's what they're there for.’”

But by the next day it had to be acknowledged that as soon as “novice” operator Jeanice McMillan realized to her horror that the Automatic mode was taking her at 59 miles-per-hour toward a train stopped around a curve she desperately hit the emergency brakes. She didn’t try to jump to save herself; paid the princely wage of 18.20 per hour she stayed on duty to the end.

The brakes apparently didn’t work much better than the computer circuits buried under the track that failed to detect the idling train ahead. As is typical of this 1970s model, the Rohr 1000-series car on the front end of the moving train first began to climb over the stationary one--and then collapsed like a Boy Scout telescope.

Sister McMillan deserves the recognition she finally received at a memorial service at her church Friday evening--not only from her union coworkers but belatedly from the Metro General Manager and the Mayor of Washington as well.

Failed computer circuits, inadequate brakes, and poorly designed rolling stock appear to be the primary factors that came together to cause the worst accident in Metro history. The first two factors may well be connected to “deferred maintenance” so common in cash-strapped transit agencies.

The Rohr 1000 cars are a different kettle of smelly fish--directly related to the financial shenanigans explored by Les Leopold in his Looting of America. The New York Times reported,

“...federal safety officials had [three years ago] warned that the Washington train cars could be unsafe in crashes, and called for them to be replaced, or at least strengthened. Transit officials there said they could not afford to replace the cars, which make up more than a quarter of their rolling stock, and added that they were obliged to keep them in service until 2014 because of the terms of a complicated tax shelter.”

We wrote last fall about these scams that became quite common among transit, and other public sector bodies. The authorities sell their trains and buses to banks and then lease them back. The banks get to deduct depreciation and other charges for the equipment–something public agencies that don’t pay taxes can’t do.

Most of these schemes were insured by AIG. When that giant, now “nationalized,” collapsed the banks demanded many transit agencies–including the Washington Metro–pay the total owed for the balance of the deal immediately or else find another AAA-rated insurer. With some nudging from the courts, deals were negotiated by most to dodge the bullet. The Metro had to pay 14 million in penalties. Under the present rules they are obligated to maintain the bank tax shelters for another five years.

Of course, the Metro isn’t the only agency with aging equipment. They are in fact one of the best. A Chicago Transit Authority train involved in a 2006 accident that injured 160 people was 55 years old. The same Times article says,

“More than a third of the equipment in the nation’s seven largest rail transit agencies was rated in marginal or poor condition by the Federal Transit Administration this spring. Replacing all the equipment that has exceeded its useful life and finishing all outstanding station rehabilitations for just those seven large systems would cost roughly $50 billion, the agency estimated, and keeping the systems in a state of good repair after that would cost an estimated $5.9 billion a year. By contrast, the $787 billion stimulus law contains only $8.4 billion for transit capital improvements across the nation.”

Hard working transit workers will try to make do and keep transit safely running. The Washington Post reported,

“Jackie L. Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most of Metro's front-line employees, including train operators, said she interpreted the findings as proof that the system failed....The union and some members of Congress are also recommending that Metro sandwich its oldest cars, the ones that made up the striking train, between newer cars.”

Capital equipment expansion or replacement is not the only challenge. Gridlock and soaring fuel prices led to an explosion of transit ridership in recent years. But operating funds to keep workers on the job and buses and trains running and maintained have declined because of the crisis. Only ten percent of the meager transit stimulus package can be used for operating expenses. Most agencies have sharply curtailed service and some have laid off workers. My old employer, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, is in the midst of the biggest layoff since the privatized spin-off of Johnson County Transit nearly thirty years ago.

All this comes at a time when we sorely need to greatly expand transit if we are serious about tackling global warming. But as transit crumbles dangerously congress offers Cash for Clunkers–to buy new cars. On Thursday the White House urged congress to stop considering a 500 billion dollar transportation bill in committee and instead continue present funding levels until after the 2010 congressional election.

Dueling Reforms
The House and the Senate each have plans for health care “reform.” Since I haven’t much space left, and because nothing can get passed without sixty votes in the upper chamber, we’ll take a quick look at the version coming out of the Senate Finance Committee.

After much tinkering this bill claims to offer insurance to 16 million uninsured–about a third of the number presently uncovered. It rejects the “public option” touted in the House instead authorizing regional co-ops–modeled on rural marketing and utility cooperatives. It requires bosses employing 200 or more workers to either pay fifty percent of employee insurance premiums or a sliding scale financial penalty to the government. Purchase of insurance would also be mandated for individuals not insured through an employer unless they can prove financial hardship.

Medicaid would be expanded–but only to include more dependent children and pregnant women. Subsidies to help pay for private insurance could also be granted to households earning up to 300 percent of the poverty line–for example, this would mean a family of four with a household income of 66,000.

This program to enrich the health insurance robber barons is expected to cost the government on the order of a trillion dollars over the next decade. Financing is still being fine tuned but will almost certainly include new taxes on workers receiving employer plans; a new set of excise taxes including items such as soda pop and Twinkies; cuts in government Medicare payments; and possibly a national sales tax.

The bottom line of this “reform” is more than thirty million will remain without coverage of any kind, workers will pay more than ever for health, and there will be no appreciable improvement in the quality of health care delivery in the USA which, despite its enormous cost, remains inferior to most other industrialized countries.

Of course, most of those other countries have systems such as single-payer in Canada–or, dare we say it, socialized medicine, such as Britain. Health care in these countries is a right guaranteed to all–not a commodity whose price is bankrupting American society and condemning many to needless early death.

It will probably be months before those “at the table” settle on a final bill and budget. There is still time to fight these retrograde “reforms,” even though the robber barons will likely win this round. But while doing so, it is time for the unions and progressive health care professionals making up the backbone of the single-payer moment to take stock and begin rethinking program, strategy, and tactics for genuine universal health care in the United States. I’ll offer some personal suggestions along these lines next week.

In Brief...
¶ One of the first major union battles to save retiree health care was led by the United Mine Workers against Pittston in 1989. The Kingsport [Tennessee] Times News has run a surprisingly thorough, fair twenty-year recollection of this epic battle which you can read by clicking
¶ The Toronto municipal workers I wrote about last week did indeed go on strike. Though the press usually refers to it as the “garbage strike,” the 24,000 on the picket lines do much more than just that essential service. The city has had to cancel Wednesday’s official Canada Day celebration–roughly equivalent to the Fourth of July in the USA.
¶ Toronto municipals are not the only workers acting up north of our border. My bus driver friend Rod in Vancouver sent me links to other stories which will be posted on the Daily Labor News Digest tomorrow. One reports a blockade by CAW workers of the BBI Enterprises auto parts facility in Ajax, Ontario to protest an early closing of the plant.
¶ UE members, backed by Jobs with Justice and other supporters, carried out coordinated protests at Wells Fargo facilities in twenty cities Tuesday. Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks and the recipient of a 25 billion bailout from taxpayers, is unfairly forcing the closure of Quad City Die Casting, a viable factory in Moline, IL where the members of UE Local 1174 work, by cutting off the normal line of credit the company needs in order to operate and stay in business. For more information click
¶ By a narrow margin, the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy Security Act. We’ll take a fresh look at this scam next time.

That’s all for this week.

fight2 by One Day In Julyteargas by One Day In Julyfuneral by One Day In Julybutton by One Day In July
One Day In July—A Street Festival For the Working Class
Remembering the 1934 Minneapolis Truck Strike–Minneapolis, Saturday, July 25

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