Rail Workers Pressure Leaders To Fight Against One-Person Crews

Imagine trains carrying toxic chemicals or nuclear waste through your town and across the wilderness. Now imagine that the train is operated by a lone employee working long hours. The first part is already reality. The part about a lone employee is the goal of the railroad employer group, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC). All-Out Attack on Rail WorkersThe carriers first put out their plan to go to single-employee operations about 15 months ago, when they issued their bargaining demands to the Teamsters Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) and the United Transportation Union (UTU). Their proposal not only included the drastic attack on jobs, but proposed that the BLET and the UTU negotiate directly against each other to decide whether the engineers or the conductors would take the biggest hit. The UTU represents primarily conductors. Any attacks on a contract should be met with a fight, but the demand to eliminate the crafts of engineer and conductor calls for extraordinary resistance. From the start, the employers gambled on a longstanding war between the BLET and the UTU to assist them in their strategy of divide and conquer. Public and Workers at RiskWith only one set of eyes and ears aboard, the safety of the workforce and the general public is vastly compromised. Crew fatigue is already a major issue on the rails. This danger is doubled with a reduction to one lone employee. Also, when a lone worker becomes injured, ill or otherwise in need of assistance, there would be no one who could come to his or her aid. And without a second crew member to help read signals and monitor the train, potentially fatal mishaps like train-motorist collisions could rapidly increase. Rank and File ResistanceIn spite of the overwhelming danger to the members and the public, the leaderships of the UTU and BLET showed no particular interest in fighting the carriers. Instead, they played into the hands of the NCCC by ratcheting up their raids and propaganda warfare against each other. The rank and file members of the two unions were not impressed. Most would rather see their dues money go towards fighting off employer demands than spent on destroying the union of their co-workers. Engineers and conductors formed a group whose aim is to stop the inter-union warfare once and for all by bringing about a merger of the two unions. Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU) began creating pressure on the unions to put aside their differences and put the members first. “When our employers lit the house on fire with their demands, all our unions could do was argue about who forgot to put batteries in the fire alarm,” says Illinois engineer Ed Michael. “ROCU wants to stop the bickering and focus on the real problems engineers and conductors face on the job.” Hundreds have contacted ROCU, asking how to help stop the destructive behavior of their unions. In January, the group initiated a petition drive that has circulated the continent and garnered thousands of signatures, demanding that the unions stop fighting each other and start fighting single-employee operations. Then, in February, the UTU and BLET announced that they would do just that. Change of HeartThe announcement that the two unions would call off their raiding was followed by vow of utmost unity. Naturally, members hope their leaders are sincere about their newfound unity, but there are also signs that the funds to protract the fight may have been dwindling. The UTU failed to persuade its delegates to pass a five dollar dues increase and have since announced that they will be eliminating eight vice presidents—quite a cut! Department of Labor LM-2 forms show that in 2004, half of all UTU dues income was funneled into a pension fund for officials, so it is unlikely that those eight vice presidents will suffer much. Meanwhile, BLET President Don Hahs has political worries, and may be looking to shore up support by appearing to at last engage the carriers in a fight. He is up for election this year and faces at least one serious challenger. Beyond RhetoricThe UTU and BLET have issued some very nice statements about uniting to fight single-employee operations, but members are still waiting to see results. ROCU activists have their own idea for action. They say the unions should take the fight into trackside communities that would be affected by derailments resulting from fatigue. They say coalitions should be made with other labor unions and community groups. And even though labor law makes work stoppages difficult, they want to see preparations for a strike, should it be necessary. The Track AheadPreviously, the UTU officialdom has sworn it would never merge into the Teamster Rail Conference, claiming that truck drivers compete with rail workers. “By that logic,” says Milwaukee engineer Ron Kaminkow, “Union Pacific conductors shouldn’t belong to the same union as those that work for their biggest competitor, BNSF. That, of course, is absurd. All transportation workers need to stick together to prevent us being whipsawed against one another by the companies.” The UTU may be listening. Although no engagemen has been annouced, some are hearing wedding bells. “It’s hard to say what their plans are,” says Little Rock conductor Jim Eubanks, “but one thing is for sure: we want a different kind of union. We don’t just want our unions to merge so that officers can have bigger perks; we want a truly democratic union for the operating crafts.”

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