Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (a division of the Teamsters Rail Conference) will soon have the opportunity to vote for an important change to their bylaws. On April 19, a ballot was sent to every member to ask if the election of National Officers should be changed to be “one member, one vote.” Currently, national officers are elected by delegates at the BLET Convention, the same way Teamster International officers used to be elected before TDU won the Right to Vote.
One of the architects of this referendum is W. L. Morris, an officer in the small Division 316 with about 60 members who work for the Norfolk Southern in Georgia. Convoy Dispatch spoke with Morris to find out more about this watershed election.
Convoy Dispatch: How did you get the idea for this initiative?
W.L. Morris: At the 1996 and 2001 BLE Conventions, the idea was presented, but shot down by the Resolutions Committee. So this time, we decided we would go right to the members. Our bylaws give us the power of initiative, which means that any member can put an idea out there and if divisions representing 25 percent of the members approve, then the membership gets to vote on the idea. It took us one and a half years to research and figure out the best time to present it. We put it out in October and used the telephone and internet as the main communication. We think this initiative is going to break up the Good Ol’ Boy system—the one where you can’t get into the club unless you are allowed in.
CD: How many people were involved at first?
WLM: Two. Myself and our delegate, Hugh Sawyer. Hugh prepared the wording. We had the support of our division and as word got out, people around the country asked what they could do to help.
CD: How do you think direct elections would change the BLET?
WLM: The change would make officers directly accountable to the membership. Now, National Officers only have to get support from a handful of different General Chairs to get elected. They are elected by delegates, but the delegates rely on advice of General Chairs for who to vote for.
Under our initiative, delegates would come back from convention to their home divisions and let members know about the nominees, give the membership information, and then members would make up their own minds.
CD: What problems would it solve?
WLM: It would get the membership back involved through the opportunity to vote, and it would give elected officials more power in negotiating and speaking for the membership. Right now, the carriers know that the National Officers, in many cases, don’t really have the support of the rank and file, so it would give us much more strength. We need that strength to fight against single-employee operations, pension and wage cuts, and other attacks on our jobs. Railroad companies are enjoying record profits, but they aren’t feeling enough pressure from the unions to pass that on to us.
CD: Would it create any problems?
WLM: Well, according to the opposition, it would cause the sky to fall in. It is going to be a growing process, especially in informing members about initiative details, but other than that, no.
CD: What were some of the obstacles you have run into?
WLM: Some General Chairmen and the National Division came out with an opposition stance. When we got the right to put out ballots we requested that they be sent out immediately, but the National Division wanted to wait until the last minute. They told us they wanted the opposition to be able to send a letter with the ballots. They said we would have the same right, but when we sent in our letter, they edited out parts they didn’t like.
The financial resources the National Division can put into opposition far outweigh those Division 316 can summon. Therefore, the initiative has to rely on the time and effort of supporters.
CD: What kind of response have you gotten from the rank and file?
WLM: Once members heard that we had achieved the goal of getting a referendum, numerous members responded with congratulations and said that they were looking forward to being able to vote. Even some that were in opposition of the initiative sent congratulations.
CD: What kind of responses have you gotten from the General Chairs?
WLM: Most of them feel that it’s not for them to decide—that it’s up to the members what to do. Others have been flag-waving in opposition. Many are afraid this right to vote for National Officers will trickle down to the General Committees. One Vice-General Chairman said he was afraid he would be held accountable to the membership.
CD: Has the National Division made any comment?
WLM: No, not publicly. You would think they would support it because of the statements they make in newsletters and press releases about membership involvement. It is okay for the membership to pay for golf trips, pensions, car allowances, five-star hotels and the bloated salaries of officials, but when it comes to paying for a referendum on the right to vote for officers, many of those receiving these benefits say the initiative would cost too much money.
CD: What is needed to get the initiative passed now?
WLM: The membership needs to rally behind it, and I believe they will. But many members have not even been informed about it yet, so we need to expand our grassroots network to get the word out.
CD: How did you find the resources to push this initiative?
WLM: Division 316 is frugal. Instead of spending money on lost time, meal allowances, etc., we saved money and spent it on this initiative. We feel dues money should be spent totally in the interest of the membership.
CD: Do you have advice for other rank and file members who want to use the initiative process?
WLM: Our biggest resource is the support of the people. Get a good support base; it’s more important than money. Cross all T’s and dot all I’s.
We made mistakes in not requesting that the ballots for the initiative be counted by neutral entities, and not pushing for phone instead of mail ballots. Also, stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish and do not let the opposition distract you.
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Click here: Rail Teamsters to Decide on "Right to Vote"