Victory Is Part of Trend towards Democracy in Rail
October 18, 2006. For the second time in three months, railroad engineers and conductors have scored a victory for the right to vote.
On Aug. 21, ballots were counted and the members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) voted to change their bylaws to require direct election of the top three national officers. The result was overwhelming, with 88 percent supporting the change.
Two months earlier, Teamster engineers and conductors in the United States also approved a system of one-member, one vote by a landslide. In 2005, delegates to the convention of the Maintenance of Way Division of the TCRC also changed their constitution to provide for direct elections.
Gerry Ranson of Division 320 in Vancouver first circulated the Canadian proposal in May. Within two months, divisions representing over 25 percent of the membership had passed resolutions endorsing it. Under the TCRC bylaws, this triggered a referendum where all members voted on whether to accept the change. Now it’s official; TCRC members get the right to vote.
“Having the right to vote was one of the big reasons we joined the Teamsters in the first place,” says Ranson. “Every Teamster power point presentation and flier talked about that. So we felt it made sense to have this same right with respect to our national officers.”
Additional Changes Sought
Delegates from divisions that supported this reform are also considering additional changes that could be made to the TCRC constitution this September. The one that may be dearest to many members’ hearts is a proposal to have direct elections at the General Committee level as well. A similar proposal was defeated by U.S. delegates at their convention in June. TCRC activists say that whether the delegates pass this reform or not, it is still the right thing to do.
“The General Chairmen are the ones who actually bargain our contracts, so we feel it’s extremely important to hold them directly accountable to the membership,” says Div. 320 member Craig Brown. “When they bargain our contracts they don’t say ‘look what we got,’ they say ‘look what we didn’t give away.’ That’s got to stop.”
TCRC delegates have the chance to hold these leaders accountable by supporting direct elections for General Chairs. If they fail to take that step, the membership may well mobilize for the change using another initiative to keep the trend rolling towards democracy.
Canadian Rail Teamsters Set for First Election
A rank and file activist has set his sights on one of the top spots of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. This summer, members won the right to vote for their top three national officers by voting for bylaws changes proposed by Gerry Ranson of Division 320 in Vancouver. Subsequently, Ranson was nominated at the TCRC Convention in September to run for the office of vice president. He is running with incumbent Gilles Halle for president and Benoit Brunet for secretary-treasurer.
When asked what platform he is promoting as a candidate, Ranson replied, “Lean, mean, and above all, clean. The members must be in control of their union.”
The date for the ballots to be mailed and counted has not yet been set, but the election will be completed by January.
BMWED Pac Fed Ballots Counted
Ballots were counted at the end of September in the first-ever direct election for officers of the Pacific Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the Teamsters. Previous elections were conducted by delegates from the 18 local lodges in the federation.
The election was hotly contested, and incumbent Louis Below held onto his general chairman seat by only 16 votes. Rank and file challengers won the other two top spots, with John Villalobos taking the vice-chairman’s position and Jaime Marquez winning secretary-treasurer. Reformers also won at-large positions on the executive board.
The new officers attempted to block a dues increase that was pushed through the Pac Fed convention last week, but Below still retains control over many of the delegates.
Norfolk Southern Fears Slowdown
Management at Norfolk Southern fears that engineers and conductors may be using the power of collective action to squirrel up the system at the Buckeye Yard in Columbus, Ohio.
In late September, the company introduced remote-controlled locomotives, and since then things haven’t been going too smoothly at the yard. As a result, NS has filed suit against two unions, the BLET and the UTU. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the suit seeks an injunction against future slowdowns and compensation for lost revenue due.
But union leaders aren’t so sure their members are the ones causing the problems. They say it’s more likely that the new technology is at fault.
October 18, 2006. Don Hahs, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Division of the Teamster Rail Conference, has spent more than $6,000 flying his wife to Alaska for a cruise, footing the bill for her airfare to various events, and paying for her meals on trips, according to documents obtained by TDU.
Other expenses for which Hahs has obtained reimbursement include use of a hotel mini-bar and in-room movies. Hahs, who receives a $35 daily “at home allowance” for time spent in Cleveland, also appears to have claimed the allowance for some days that he claimed reimbursement for hotel expenses in Washington, D.C.
Hoffa has an opportunity to prove to BLET members that he won’t let their dues money be used in this way—will he investigate and take appropriate action?
October 18, 2006. When the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers merged into the Teamsters two-and-a-half years ago, they added the words “and Trainmen” to the end of their name to signal that they welcomed conductors, brakemen, and switchmen (collectively know as trainmen). But now events in El Paso have led some to question how deep the commitment goes to these new Teamsters.
Two Unions Compete for Membership
Most trainmen are currently represented by the United Transportation Union (UTU), but across the country, there have been groups who felt dissatisfied with the UTU. In some cases, trainmen have been unhappy about the culture of corruption that landed prison sentences for top officers in 2004. Others simply felt that local leaders weren’t up to the job. El Paso is one place where nearly 100 Union Pacific trainmen, the majority Latino or Black, made the switch to join the BLET.
Rail Teamsters work under unique labor law and contract provisions that allow union members to switch back and forth between the UTU and the BLET. The BLET bargains the national agreement for the engineers, the UTU bargains for the trainmen, but members can belong to either union and be represented at early stages of the grievance procedure by whichever union they belong to.
When El Paso trainmen started flooding into the BLET to avoid what they say was poor representation by the UTU, they were warmly welcomed by the local BLET division. But at higher levels, they have been left to fend for themselves as the UTU has initiated a change to prevent them from receiving any representation from the BLET. UTU members are voting on whether to ratify the change.
No Response from BLET
Threatened with losing one of the largest trainmen units in the BLET, one would expect the national officers to swing into action. After all, the large numbers of BLET trainmen in El Paso used to be a feather in the union’s cap when it was at war with the UTU back in 2004. Now that the two unions have called a truce and have pledged to stop raiding each other, it ought to be even easier for President Don Hahs to get the UTU to call off hostilities in El Paso.
Chris Woods, Vice-Local Chairman for the trainmen in El Paso is demanding answers from Hahs. In a letter sent last week, he questions why Hahs is willing to ignore this obvious breach of good faith. He points out that many of the members he represents are minorities. He writes:
“Fully aware that the BLET, in its origins, had other than a favorable impression of ‘minority’ employees, when it came to the issue of the position of Locomotive Engineer, [is] a matter well documented in not only the language of original BLE Constitution, but also, actions that were overturned in precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decisions. As such, it could be questionable, in my mind and the minds of those I represent, as to why the BLET has allowed this current matter to progress to its current stage.”
Time is of the essence if Hahs is to act. Ballots are in Oct. 19.
Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (a division of the Teamsters Rail Conference) will soon have the opportunity to vote for an important change to their bylaws. On April 19, a ballot was sent to every member to ask if the election of National Officers should be changed to be “one member, one vote.” Currently, national officers are elected by delegates at the BLET Convention, the same way Teamster International officers used to be elected before TDU won the Right to Vote.
One of the architects of this referendum is W. L. Morris, an officer in the small Division 316 with about 60 members who work for the Norfolk Southern in Georgia. Convoy Dispatch spoke with Morris to find out more about this watershed election.
Convoy Dispatch: How did you get the idea for this initiative?
W.L. Morris: At the 1996 and 2001 BLE Conventions, the idea was presented, but shot down by the Resolutions Committee. So this time, we decided we would go right to the members. Our bylaws give us the power of initiative, which means that any member can put an idea out there and if divisions representing 25 percent of the members approve, then the membership gets to vote on the idea. It took us one and a half years to research and figure out the best time to present it. We put it out in October and used the telephone and internet as the main communication. We think this initiative is going to break up the Good Ol’ Boy system—the one where you can’t get into the club unless you are allowed in.
CD: How many people were involved at first?
WLM: Two. Myself and our delegate, Hugh Sawyer. Hugh prepared the wording. We had the support of our division and as word got out, people around the country asked what they could do to help.
CD: How do you think direct elections would change the BLET?
WLM: The change would make officers directly accountable to the membership. Now, National Officers only have to get support from a handful of different General Chairs to get elected. They are elected by delegates, but the delegates rely on advice of General Chairs for who to vote for.
Under our initiative, delegates would come back from convention to their home divisions and let members know about the nominees, give the membership information, and then members would make up their own minds.
CD: What problems would it solve?
WLM: It would get the membership back involved through the opportunity to vote, and it would give elected officials more power in negotiating and speaking for the membership. Right now, the carriers know that the National Officers, in many cases, don’t really have the support of the rank and file, so it would give us much more strength. We need that strength to fight against single-employee operations, pension and wage cuts, and other attacks on our jobs. Railroad companies are enjoying record profits, but they aren’t feeling enough pressure from the unions to pass that on to us.
CD: Would it create any problems?
WLM: Well, according to the opposition, it would cause the sky to fall in. It is going to be a growing process, especially in informing members about initiative details, but other than that, no.
CD: What were some of the obstacles you have run into?
WLM: Some General Chairmen and the National Division came out with an opposition stance. When we got the right to put out ballots we requested that they be sent out immediately, but the National Division wanted to wait until the last minute. They told us they wanted the opposition to be able to send a letter with the ballots. They said we would have the same right, but when we sent in our letter, they edited out parts they didn’t like.
The financial resources the National Division can put into opposition far outweigh those Division 316 can summon. Therefore, the initiative has to rely on the time and effort of supporters.
CD: What kind of response have you gotten from the rank and file?
WLM: Once members heard that we had achieved the goal of getting a referendum, numerous members responded with congratulations and said that they were looking forward to being able to vote. Even some that were in opposition of the initiative sent congratulations.
CD: What kind of responses have you gotten from the General Chairs?
WLM: Most of them feel that it’s not for them to decide—that it’s up to the members what to do. Others have been flag-waving in opposition. Many are afraid this right to vote for National Officers will trickle down to the General Committees. One Vice-General Chairman said he was afraid he would be held accountable to the membership.
CD: Has the National Division made any comment?
WLM: No, not publicly. You would think they would support it because of the statements they make in newsletters and press releases about membership involvement. It is okay for the membership to pay for golf trips, pensions, car allowances, five-star hotels and the bloated salaries of officials, but when it comes to paying for a referendum on the right to vote for officers, many of those receiving these benefits say the initiative would cost too much money.
CD: What is needed to get the initiative passed now?
WLM: The membership needs to rally behind it, and I believe they will. But many members have not even been informed about it yet, so we need to expand our grassroots network to get the word out.
CD: How did you find the resources to push this initiative?
WLM: Division 316 is frugal. Instead of spending money on lost time, meal allowances, etc., we saved money and spent it on this initiative. We feel dues money should be spent totally in the interest of the membership.
CD: Do you have advice for other rank and file members who want to use the initiative process?
WLM: Our biggest resource is the support of the people. Get a good support base; it’s more important than money. Cross all T’s and dot all I’s.
We made mistakes in not requesting that the ballots for the initiative be counted by neutral entities, and not pushing for phone instead of mail ballots. Also, stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish and do not let the opposition distract you.
Click here: BMWED Also Working for the Right to Vote
Click here: Rail Teamsters to Decide on "Right to Vote"
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
Since joining the IBLE in 1974, I have devoted my entire career to improving the lives of locomotive engineers and their families. I have always put the best interests of the membership first. Regrettably, President Hahs and I have too many fundamental differences about how the organization should represent the members’ best interests. In my opinion, his views and decisions are adversely impacting the survival of our craft and organization. Consequently, I do not believe it is possible for me to continue to serve the members’ best interests while working on the Executive Staff supporting his decisions.
After many weeks of careful deliberation, I have decided I must resign my position as Staff Counsel for the National Division. I have begun closing my office and will complete as many assignments as possible in the next few weeks and reassign others. You will be advised of the status of any pending legal matters affecting your respective committees. Thereafter, I will be available to assist the National Division with any transition matters and other issues as needed—including preparation for a possible Presidential Emergency Board.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity I have had to serve you and the membership and look forward to continuing to fight to preserve our craft and organization as I return to engine service on the Norfolk Southern.
Finally, since it is improper and illegal to support the campaign of any candidate for union office with union resources of any kind, I will have to respond later—using personal resources—to the many expressions of support and encouragement I have received to pursue elective office. One thing is certain, I will work relentlessly to preserve our craft. Moreover, I will challenge anyone who does not respect the highly skilled and demanding work performed by our members; and, I will expose those who are willing to accept carrier demands that will eliminate our craft.
Staff Counsel – National Division
“In my opinion, [Hahs’] views and decisions are adversely impacting the survival of our craft and organization,” Brennan wrote in his resignation letter. Since then, he has exercised his seniority on the Norfolk Southern. In his declaration of candidacy, he claims that the “business as usual” attitude of Hahs and past presidents has made the BLET weaker with respect to the carriers and to rival union UTU, even as the rail industry is reaping “record profits.”
He also implies that Hahs has not only failed to appreciate the work of the rank and file, but also failed to develop an effective working relationship with the Teamster administration. He declined to comment for this article, but says position statements will be forthcoming about his vision for the BLET.
One Member, One Vote?
The BLET officer election is scheduled to take place at its national convention in Las Vegas this June—one week ahead of the IBT Convention. But officers may be forced to abandon election by delegate and submit to direct election by the membership instead.
A number of BLET divisions have endorsed an initiative to adopt direct elections of the national officers. The initiative, which is gaining momentum, is close to the threshold of support that would require Hahs to hold a membership referendum on the issue.
Time is running short, but it is still possible that the initiative could be passed before the convention—in which case delegates could only nominate candidates for national office. The mail ballot election would take place within 60 days of the convention.
So far, neither Hahs nor Brennan has issued a statement regarding their views on direct elections in the BLET.