November 4, 2004: I am a Locomotive Engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad with 34 years of service, and am on my third term as president of Division 724 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). Before our merger this past January into the Teamsters, we were the International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE)—the oldest existing union in America. Our members enjoyed one of the most democratic union constitutions in existence. We had the powers of recall, referendum and initiative: By a vote of the membership, we could remove International officers or change our Constitution.
It was not easy to relinquish that democracy and join the Teamsters. With the merger, we lost recall and referendum, and made rank and file initiatives subject to veto by the president of the IBT.
Nevertheless, I supported the merger for two reasons. First, we were a small union with only about 35,000 members. Federal laws and agencies that govern railroads make it extremely difficult, with such small numbers, to represent your members’ interests in today’s world of state and national politics. We desperately needed the Teamster influence when supporting our members’ needs.
A House Divided
Second, the union house of railroad operating crafts had been divided for decades. The BLE bargained contracts for engineers and the United Transportation Union (UTU) bargained for trainmen (conductors, firemen and brakemen).
Train crews once were five people, and the UTU gave away three of those positions with almost no fight. They also worked with the carriers to establish a two-tier pay system that set a substandard wage for trainees and set a lower pay rate for new hires.
A pattern had been set. The railroads would negotiate with the UTU to eliminate jobs and work rules, and then, using provisions of the Railway Labor Act, force the same contracts on the BLE.
Eventually, the UTU withdrew from the AFL-CIO in order to avoid heavy fines resulting from attempted raids on the BLE.
We felt that by joining the Teamsters we would get sorely needed help in our struggle with the carriers and the UTU. Our leaders told us we would get that help, but as of yet we have not seen it.
I searched for a way to get the help we needed. In my search, I heard about the TDU. Teamsters for a Democratic Union? Could it be real? I cruised the TDU website. I read the Convoy Dispatch. With a little glimmer of hope, I sent off a check for membership. To see for myself, I decided to attend their annual convention.
It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I had only been a Teamster for ten months. I was driving 500 miles by myself to meet with people I didn’t know. Would I be welcome as a Teamster? Would they care about our problems on the railroad? It seemed I had a thousand questions!
They’re for Real!
From the first handshake and introduction, I was home! I found a group of enthusiastic people who are working hard to bring reform and democracy to a union they love in spite of its own internal problems. They weren’t abandoning their union; they were effectively struggling inside the system, leading a movement to improve the lives of rank and file Teamsters. They are united in their efforts!
They are educating and supporting rank and file members who are resisting the legacy of corruption, and instead promoting member involvement and democracy.
Before TDU, I was a member of the BLET who just happened to belong to the Teamsters Rail Conference. TDU has given me the pride and knowledge to look anyone in the eye and say, “I am a Teamster!” An active TDU membership within the BLET can bring about positive changes, the same as TDU has been doing for thirty years in the IBT.
I urge not only every BLET member, but also all Teamsters everywhere, to join TDU, distribute copies of Convoy Dispatch to other Teamsters and let them know there is a way for each of us to bring a positive change to our jobs.
Ed Michael, Union Pacific Railroad
BLET Division 724
Teamsters Rail Conference