Railway union members rage against Amtrak at Workers' Memorial Day

John F. McAteer (center) places a rose on a symbolic casket for Peter Adamovich, who died in an Amtrak crash on April 3.

The tears were there, as usual, under a gray sky that wept along with those gathered Friday by the Delaware River for Workers' Memorial Day, to honor people killed on the job.

But there was anger as well, and it boiled over at the annual breakfast that preceded a solemn march on Columbus Boulevard to a rainy memorial service at Penn's Landing.

With a roar not unlike the sound of the train that mowed down two Amtrak workers on April 3, waves of railway workers rose to their feet Friday in rage and sadness in response to a call from their union leader.

"Stand up if you think it is time to strike Amtrak and shut down the Northeast Corridor to force Amtrak to provide a safe workplace and to protect our lives," Jed Dodd shouted.

"Let me hear you say union," he said.

Dodd, who leads the union that represents rail-repair workers in Pennsylvania, took the microphone at the fund-raising breakfast for PhilaPOSH, a group that advocates for workers' safety. He had another question for members of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, and it was key:

"Are you ready to risk arrest and go to jail to ensure that every member of our union can return home safely to their family?"

"Union," they shouted.

Federal law makes it difficult for railway workers to strike, partly because of the importance of railroads to the economy.

And so Dodd described what happened in 1994, after two union members were killed and a third mutilated on the job.

"Many of us risked arrest and jail as our tactics escalated into civil disobedience," he said. "Finally . . . we rose up and struck . . . shutting down hundreds of trains in 17 states."

A federal judge, he said, ordered them back to work that night, putting Conrail's safety rules under federal court jurisdiction, which led to new safety regulations in 1997. From then until 2013, three of his union's members were killed on the tracks, Dodd said.

But in the last 18 months, he said, four have died, two on April 3 when a train slammed into a backhoe on an Amtrak line in Chester, killing Joseph Carter and Peter Adamovich.

Dodd laid the blame for their deaths on a change in corporate culture that began when Joseph Boardman was appointed Amtrak chief executive in 2008.

Boardman withdrew management's participation in a joint safety committee, reduced training, fired experienced senior executives, and intimidated middle managers and workers from identifying hazards, Dodd said.

Later Friday, an Amtrak spokesman said the passenger railroad "is continuously working to improve the safety culture within . . . the entire company. The most effective way to make that happen is true collaboration between Amtrak management and union leadership."

Dodd was joined on stage at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 banquet hall by David Michaels, assistant U.S. labor secretary for occupational safety and health.

Michaels expressed frustration with what he described as weak penalties under the Occupational Safety and Health Act for employers who allow conditions that kill or injure workers.

The fines they face, $100,000 or $200,000, "are like petty cash," he said.

"I believe if we had more criminal prosecutions, we'd have a much bigger impact in changing these employers," Michaels said. Jail, he noted, would sharpen their focus on safety.

His remarks came the same day roofer James McCullagh, 60, was to report to federal prison in connection with the death of his friend and employee, Mark T. Smith.

Smith had not been given any fall protection. He died on June 21, 2013, while repairing a church roof on Broad Street in Philadelphia.

McCullagh pleaded guilty to lying to inspectors about the fall-protection gear and asking his other employees to lie. On March 29, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Among the speakers Friday was union official Jim Whitehead of SEIU 32BJ District 1201, which represents school maintenance workers and engineers.

Whitehead said Chris Trakimas, the Philadelphia School District employee badly burned Jan. 15 while trying to fix a boiler at Edmonds Elementary School, remains in a coma. Whitehead blamed Trakimas' injury on the "budget cuts, politics, neglect, and callousness" that have led the district to delay infrastructure repairs.

Representing the families of those who have died was Rosalie Hetrick, whose husband, Thomas, a Verizon repair worker, was killed in 2008. Hetrick said her husband told supervisors the job was unsafe, but was ignored.

"I hate Verizon for the way they disrespected him in his death," she said. "It's really easy to blame the dead guy."

Hetrick sued Verizon on behalf of her family, but lost the case.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen

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