Safety, union collaboration and “creating long-term value” were the three main topics of Norfolk Southern’s (NS) first company-wide town hall meeting. Held June 1 in Bellevue, Ohio, 20,000 railroaders from across the Class I’s 22-state network participated in-person and online. More than two dozen union representatives were also in attendance, and six labor leaders joined NS President and CEO Alan H. Shaw on stage.
“We charted a new course in the industry, and we are really focused on culture,” Shaw said during the event. “For me, it starts with culture. You gotta get culture right well before you even think about getting your strategy right. What I’ve tried to do at Norfolk Southern is building this culture of transparency and inclusion where everyone feels the responsibility and protected to raise issues and provide feedback.”
“Succeeding is going to take all of us,” Shaw stressed. “I know a lot of you have ideas about enhancing safety and improving our safety culture, and I really appreciate that. I want to hear from you, I want you to speak up. When all of us speak up, that’s 20,000 voices pushing for safety—pushing for what’s best for Norfolk Southern.”
NS has moved forward on a variety of safety initiatives recently: from implementing a new six-point plan for improving safety—based on the NTSB’s preliminary findings on the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment—to retaining Atkins Nuclear Secured to conduct a multi-year independent review of the railroad’s “safety-first culture.”
Additionally, Alan H. Shaw and leaders of 12 of the Class I’s labor unions sent a joint letter May 23 “underscoring their shared goal of partnering together to drive continuous improvement in rail safety at the company.” The letter was sent to all NS craft and management employees. At the town hall meeting, NS unveiled a locomotive emblazoned with all 12 labor union logos (pictured below).
“We’re going to be different,” Shaw told town hall attendees. “The traditional rail model was really focused on short-term margins, and it tended to get there by cut. And for those of you who worked out in the field, I know that that was really hard on you. That’s not what we’re doing going forward. Because I think that our long-term approach is a better way forward for Norfolk Southern. And we made promises to our employees. We’re hiring. I’m going to invest in our people. And the next time there’s an economic downturn, we’re not going to furlough. We’re the only railroad where 100% of our craft colleagues have access to paid sick leave. Promises kept. I also said I really want to engage better with our union leadership. Our unions were set up to drive safety. And we can really get aligned around that.”
Also participating at the meeting were SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen President Mike Baldwin, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division President Tony Cardwell, American Train Dispatchers Association President Leo McCann, and Transportation Communications Union Assistant General President Carl Lakin.
“Our union was created on the need for safety,” Jeremy Ferguson said in his address to attendees. “There are two fundamentals that we have to work with. The first is culture, and the other one is ownership. Part of culture is us being able to change how we treat each other and to show respect when someone raises a hand and says, ‘I’m concerned about this,’ or ‘I think this is an unsafe condition.’ That is a commitment we have to make to each other.
“The other key component, as I said, is ownership. We all have a part in that. The old saying in the unions is that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That’s what we have to do. Make sure all of us, including the managers, including the switchmen, the maintenance of way workers, everybody, we take care of each other to make sure everybody is safe. We can’t just say it, we’ve got to live it.”
Mike Baldwin pointed out: “My hope is we can knock this out of the park and everybody notices. Everybody wants to be NS; everybody wants to do the same thing.”
“I really believe that NS has an opportunity to set the example and set a new standard,” Tony Cardwell noted. “I’m here to help you with that. Our members want to see you succeed. Our members want to see this company succeed.”
“We look forward to this journey together as we measure our successes, and day-to-day small victories,” Leo McCann said. “Changing the culture at NS will be a long and difficult road, but being in this together has an opportunity to be the premier, safest railroad.”
“We’re committed to continuing the effort to ensure every member has a safe workplace, and we trust Norfolk Southern is sincere in their commitment as well,” Carl Lakin summed up. “If labor and Norfolk Southern truly work together to improve safety at Norfolk Southern, there is no limit on what we can accomplish.”
In a related development, Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp on June 6 joined Alan H. Shaw at an NS first responder safety training session. The event was part of the railroad’s free, hands-on program, Operation Awareness & Response, which educates more than 5,000 first responders annually.
According to NS, the Governor was on-site as first responders received instruction, toured the locomotives and interacted with local emergency response teams.
“Norfolk Southern is a valued corporate citizen in our state,” Gov. Kemp said. “With their headquarter operation being anchored here, they create thousands of Georgia jobs while also supporting our thriving logistics industry. Yesterday’s training event was a reminder of their dedication to proactive partnerships with first responders on all levels in service of public safety, and we’re thankful for Norfolk Southern’s commitment to delivering goods all over the state and nation with safety in mind, especially during this National Safety Month.”