Similar Effort in BMWED Suffers Setback
In a resounding vote, Teamsters in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen have changed their bylaws to give members the Right to Vote for their national officers. Members voting in the mail ballot referendum cast their votes in favor of the change by nearly a two-to-one margin.
A determined group of engineers from Atlanta Division 316 put forward the idea of direct elections in October of last year. Within a few months, other divisions representing 25 percent of the BLET membership signed on. This triggered a provision in the BLET bylaws that called for a referendum of the membership, and in April every member received a ballot asking them to decide the issue.
In mid-June the ballots were counted and the result was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. If the membership had voted no, then the BLET would have continued to elect their national officers through delegates at conventions. But activists who put the amendment forward weren’t worried about that.
“We knew the members wanted this,” said W.L. Morris of Division 316, one of the architects of the proposal. “Since we’ve joined the IBT, we have the right to vote for our International officers. Why shouldn’t we have that same right in our National division?”
Ed Michael, President of Div. 724 and candidate for International Teamsters Vice President, agreed. “BLET members deserve the right to hold their leaders directly accountable, and the carriers need to know that our leaders have the confidence of the members they represent. This is more democratic and will make us stronger at the bargaining table.”
Earlier in the week, delegates to the BLET Convention in Las Vegas elected national officers for one last time. Future elections will be based on one member, one vote: unless the entrenched officers are able to figure out an end run around the will of the membership.
Activists Work to Expand the Right, Others Work to Undo It
Some BLET General Chairmen and Vice Presidents have already been making plans to have another referendum two years from now to undo the right to vote. That is the soonest that such a petition could be circulated according to the bylaws.
“We do have to be vigilant in making sure that the powers-that-be don’t steal this victory from us,” says Hugh Sawyer, the Local Chair of Div. 316. “But I think any attempt to rescind this initiative will be a minefield for those whose only argument can be that the rank and file are too stupid to make the decisions. I think the members will reject any such effort.”
As every strategist knows, the best defense is a good offense. The network of BLET members who fought for the right to vote for national officers would like to see a similar effort at the General Committee level.
“General Chairmen are the officers that members most depend on to fight for our bread and butter issues. We have good General Chairs, and we have bad ones, but all of them should have to stand for election by the members,” says Brad Thompson of Div. 442 in Missouri. Currently General Chairs are selected by the Local Chairmen of each division in the Committee.
No initiative has yet been circulated to change the bylaws to make such a change, but a proposal was submitted to the BLET convention that would have brought direct election to the General Committees if it had been adopted. The delegates, under direction of the majority of General Chairmen, voted the provision down and also defeated an effort to have the vote reported out through roll call.
BMWED Faces Higher Hurdle
Rail Teamsters in the BMWED (Maintenance of Way) do not have the provision in their bylaws that BLET members used to obtain a referendum. Instead, activists for the right to vote had to try to persuade the delegates at the BMWED convention to approve one-member, one-vote. This was quite an uphill battle and the reformers fell short. Led by Hoffa running-mate Freddie Simpson, the delegates rejected this proposal, saying that they were capable of speaking for the membership.
This is not the first time the Right to Vote has been raised at Maintenance of Way Conventions, and with the success of BLET members in this area, it may become harder for future delegates to continue to reject direct elections.