October 18, 2006. When the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers merged into the Teamsters two-and-a-half years ago, they added the words “and Trainmen” to the end of their name to signal that they welcomed conductors, brakemen, and switchmen (collectively know as trainmen). But now events in El Paso have led some to question how deep the commitment goes to these new Teamsters.
Two Unions Compete for Membership
Most trainmen are currently represented by the United Transportation Union (UTU), but across the country, there have been groups who felt dissatisfied with the UTU. In some cases, trainmen have been unhappy about the culture of corruption that landed prison sentences for top officers in 2004. Others simply felt that local leaders weren’t up to the job. El Paso is one place where nearly 100 Union Pacific trainmen, the majority Latino or Black, made the switch to join the BLET.
Rail Teamsters work under unique labor law and contract provisions that allow union members to switch back and forth between the UTU and the BLET. The BLET bargains the national agreement for the engineers, the UTU bargains for the trainmen, but members can belong to either union and be represented at early stages of the grievance procedure by whichever union they belong to.
When El Paso trainmen started flooding into the BLET to avoid what they say was poor representation by the UTU, they were warmly welcomed by the local BLET division. But at higher levels, they have been left to fend for themselves as the UTU has initiated a change to prevent them from receiving any representation from the BLET. UTU members are voting on whether to ratify the change.
No Response from BLET
Threatened with losing one of the largest trainmen units in the BLET, one would expect the national officers to swing into action. After all, the large numbers of BLET trainmen in El Paso used to be a feather in the union’s cap when it was at war with the UTU back in 2004. Now that the two unions have called a truce and have pledged to stop raiding each other, it ought to be even easier for President Don Hahs to get the UTU to call off hostilities in El Paso.
Chris Woods, Vice-Local Chairman for the trainmen in El Paso is demanding answers from Hahs. In a letter sent last week, he questions why Hahs is willing to ignore this obvious breach of good faith. He points out that many of the members he represents are minorities. He writes:
“Fully aware that the BLET, in its origins, had other than a favorable impression of ‘minority’ employees, when it came to the issue of the position of Locomotive Engineer, [is] a matter well documented in not only the language of original BLE Constitution, but also, actions that were overturned in precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decisions. As such, it could be questionable, in my mind and the minds of those I represent, as to why the BLET has allowed this current matter to progress to its current stage.”
Time is of the essence if Hahs is to act. Ballots are in Oct. 19.