September 24, 2014: Rank and file rail workers—including Teamsters in the BLET—have won an important round in the fight to maintain two-person crews in America’s rail cabs. In mid-September, conductors on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) soundly rejected a contract that would have allowed one-person crews.
"Rail workers told the BNSF railway, their union leaders and fellow rail workers that they will not support single-person crews,” said Ron Kaminkow, an engineer for Amtrak and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET) affiliated with the Teamsters.
Kaminkow is General Secretary of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a network of rail workers in various unions, including the Teamsters. RWU seeks to build solidarity and break down petty rivalries fostered by certain union officials.
The conductors’ union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union (SMART) negotiated the deal in secret, then tried to sell it with smoke and mirrors and a “signing bonus.”
“The surprise attack coming from the union, on the two-person train crew, lit a fire under the rank and file like I have never seen in my 13 years of railroading,” said JP Wright of BLET IBT 740. Wright is the RWU Co-Chair and a TDU member.
RWU’s press release notes that the contract rejection is “a decisive victory, not just for the trainmen and engineers on the BNSF, but for every railroad worker in North America.”
It is especially important for the 33,000 rail engineers of the BLET-IBT. These Teamsters would be under the gun to accept single person operating crews, if the BNSF had won that concession.
Rail unions have spent too much time fighting each other and too little building solidarity to protect jobs. The result is the carriers get concessions, even while profits are high. RWU is working to change that.
RWU was instrumental in coordinating the opposition to the contract among trainmen and engineers, with conference calls on strategy, leaflets, stickers, rallies and media coverage.
BNSF, which is highly profitable and owned by Warren Buffett’s Burkshire Hathaway, is the second-largest rail carrier in North America. The deal would have affected about 3000 conductors. Until this battle, the front line of battle against single-person crews has been at a smaller carrier, the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway.
A hundred members of the BLET-IBT 292 struck the W & LE a year ago, shutting down its operations, after the company tried to impose single-person crews. A federal temporary restraining order sent the engineers back to work. Local BLET Chairman Lonnie Swigert said they will do it again, if they have to. Bargaining is presently deadlocked.
The issue is critical to both jobs and safety. No one would want to fly on a 747 with a one-person crew, although planes have auto-pilot. Do you want a 15,000 ton train with a one-person crew rolling through your town? “It would create a massive safety hazard,” a BNSF conductor in Seattle and member of RWU stated.
Kaminkow said the priority now is to build on the solidarity that powered this win. The RWU statement calls this “the opening shot in a protracted war” to preserve union jobs and public safety on North America's rail lines.