April 2, 2007: Last month’s strike on the Canadian National shows why we need to have unity on the rails—and why having a democratic union is so important.
Over 2,800 trainmen, members of the United Transportation Union, went out on strike Feb. 10. They stayed out for two weeks, and their strike had a huge impact on the Canadian economy. With support from the UTU International and solidarity from other rail unions, they may have won their strike.
Unfortunately, Canadian labor law says that the engineers, who are members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, had to stay on the job for the duration of the strike. If the trainmen and the engineers were members of the same union, the engineers could have legally honored the trainmen’s picket line and shut down the line completely.
Even worse, the UTU International refused to support the strike, and removed the elected Canadian leadership in the middle of the fight. In hearings before the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, the UTU International sided with the company against the strikers.
After canning the local leaders, the UTU International forced a tentative deal identical to the company’s last offer before the strike. We will know on April 10 if the UTU members accept or reject the deal.
With the strike called off, many members of the UTU in Canada are proposing to leave the UTU and to sign up with the Teamsters. They are collecting cards to force a certification election.
I can understand why conductors in Canada are fed up with the UTU International. Their own International officers pulled the plug on the strike and are now trying to force through a tentative agreement which appears to be a bad deal for the membership.
But unity on the rails can’t start with one union raiding another. In the past few years, the UTU tried to force a “winner-take-all” election on the Union Pacific, while the BLET led an A-card drive on the Norfolk Southern. Thankfully, both campaigns have now been called off. But they have left behind division and bitterness.
I understand why some railroaders would like to leave one union and try out another. But are we really going to win more power for railroaders that way? I don’t think so.
That’s why I’m working to build Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU). We are a group of engineers and conductors nationwide from both unions who are working together for a democratic, rank-and-file merger of the BLET and the UTU. We believe in unity from the bottom-up, a complete and total merger of equals, and a union that empowers the membership to fight against our one true adversary—the carriers.
And that’s why I am also working with Teamsters for a Democratic Union. TDU has 30 years experience in the fight to further democracy and membership control of the Teamsters, which my union—the BLET—is now affiliated.
Either way the certification fight winds up in Canada, the trainmen up there have my support. Now’s the time for rank-and-file conductors and engineers to put the past behind us and to start working together to put our unions on the right track.
—Ron Kaminkow is a member of BLET Div. 51 at Amtrak in Reno, Nev.