April 11, 2007: Canadian National Railway Co.'s 2,800 union conductors and yard workers rejected a proposed one- year contract from the country's biggest railroad and voted to strike.
The United Transportation Union, representing 2,800 CN conductors and yard workers in that country, planned to release the count at 5 p.m. eastern time, amid indications that many union members might reject the tentative one-year contract.
The UTU struck CN for two weeks in February before the two sides reached a deal that sent union members back to work. However, the strike technically remained in effect with job actions suspended pending the union vote, so if workers do not accept the deal the union would resume strike activity within hours.
The UTU has said if members reject the contract it would probably use a "rolling strike" of selected outages this time instead of a full-scale walkout. CN spokesman Mark Hallman said if that happens the company as before would use managers to keep trains running.
"CN will work very hard to maintain service to its customers," Hallman said, but he noted that CN's service level would be affected by the frequency and severity of any labor disruptions.
The February strike cut into plant and port activity and triggered layoffs among customers, and the government asked Parliament to end the strike and put the talks under arbitration that could impose a settlement. But the strike ended before the lawmakers voted on the measure, and Parliament is now adjourned until next week.
The UTU vote is complicated with a drive by former UTU-Canada leaders to have union members join the Teamsters, which already represents CN train engineers, and reject the UTU contract with CN. The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference says a majority of CN's UTU members signed application cards with that other union.
CN recently warned that its first-quarter earnings would not meet earlier expectations, because of the strike plus unusually severe and recurring weather problems. If the strike picks back up, this time it would affect second-quarter operations.
by John D. Boyd
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.
April 2, 2007: After three years of working without a national contract, the BLET announced a deal with the National Carriers’ Conference on March 5. The new deal eliminates COLA and allows the carriers to pass along health care costs to Teamster engineers.
The BLET has not released the full proposed agreement—only a two-page summary.
Here’s what we know so far:
Wages: Engineers will get a 3 percent wage increase when the deal goes into effect on July 1. That’s on top of a 5.5 percent retroactive wage increase for 2005 and 2006. Wages will go up 4 percent in 2008, and 4.5 percent in 2009.
COLA: The new deal eliminates the cost-of-living adjustments completely.
Health and welfare: Co-pays go up from $15 to $20 for family doctor visits and from $15 to $35 for specialists. Engineers will pay 15 percent of their monthly health-care premiums, up from 14.2 percent. The carriers will adjust these premiums each January of the agreement.
Single-crew operation squashed: The carriers withdrew their requests for single-crew operation and other work rule changes.
“Cost of living—that’s the real sleeper issue,” said Ed Michael, an engineer on the Union Pacific. “If inflation stays low, we won’t feel it too bad. But if anything goes wrong, it’s going to eat our lunch.”
The new contract also fails to control health care costs, a big issue for engineers. In 2006, the average cost of employer health care premiums increased by 7.7 percent—double the rate of inflation. Under the old contract, engineers went from paying $100 a month in 2004 to $148 a month this year.
Under the new contract, the carriers will pass along 15 percent of their total health care cost to employees, and they can raise their rates each January. The contract caps the amount at $200, but only in 2010. There are no other caps. And the rate can go above $200 if the rates in 2009 are higher than that amount.
“Most engineers won’t find out the details of this contract until they get their ratification ballots,” said Harvey Evans of BLET Division 724. “But we need real answers about COLA and health care. Why did the union give up COLA? We’ve been bargaining for three years—can’t we do better than this?”
Rail Teamsters—Teamsters on the Right Track
"Through the TDU Rail Chapter, rail Teamsters are helping to get our union back on the right track. We're fighting the carriers for strong agreements and we're promoting the unity of all railroad crafts. Get on board and help us out."
Ed Michael, Union Pacific
BLET Div. 724, Salem, Ill.
Over 2,800 members of the United Transportation Union (UTU) went out on strike against Canadian National Railways at midnight on Saturday, Feb. 10. According to Rex Beatty, general chairman of one of the four Canadian general committees on strike, trainmen on the CN want longer break periods and a pay raise. The strike continues as we go to press.
The striking Canadians are getting no support from their International. UTU International President Paul Thompson has refused all aid to the strikers: “Rather than having the assistance of the largest railroad union in North America and the substantial resources of the International on their side, our brothers and sisters in Canada have been put in a position of having to fend for themselves.”
Union Lawyers Side with the Railroad
The Canada Industrial Relations Board met with union and company representatives on Feb. 13. Siding with the railroad, lawyers for the UTU International asked the CIRB to declare the strike illegal. The Board postponed any decision.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference has issued a statement wishing the UTU “total success” in their strike, but BLET members in Canada are legally prevented from honoring the strikers’ picket lines. “This is exactly why we need a democratic merger of the BLET and UTU,” said Ed Michael, a member of BLET Div. 724. “We should all be united when we go up to fight the carriers.”
Rail Teamsters are starting to wonder just how long they can go without a new contract. Negotiations began in 2004 between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, but the two parties have still not agreed to a new contract.
The talks stalled when the carriers demanded single-crew operation of trains. Both the BLET and the UTU refused to budge over the issue.
Health Care Costs: Out of Control
Teamster engineers are paying for working without a contract. With no new contract, the carriers are free to pass increased costs along to BLET members. At the start of negotiations, rail Teamsters paid $100 a month for their health insurance. Now that number has shot up to $148 a month.
The failure to conclude negotiations has also kept some areas from keeping up in terms of wages and working conditions.
“On the Illinois Central, their general committee made a separate deal,” said Hugh Sawyer, Local Chairman of BLET Div. 316. “Their agreement raised their wages significantly above the baseline set by the national agreement.”
Many rail general committees make separate deals in addition to the national agreement on wages and work rules.
We don’t think the carriers can win single-crew train operation in this round of bargaining. But even if a new contract is wrapped up this year, new bargaining is scheduled to start again in 2008. And the Union Pacific and other Class 1 railroads are actively pursuing technologies like satellite train operation that could theoretically allow single-crew operation—at a huge potential safety risk.
Railroad engineers and trainmen from two unions are out to win greater solidarity and union democracy on the rails. On Jan. 1, Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU) officially launched its campaign to unite the two unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the United Transportation Union (UTU).
If ROCU is successful in bringing about a merger, it will mean over 100,000 rail workers would be in the same union, a big step for rail labor unity and transportation worker solidarity. In the past few years, two rail unions—the BLET and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWED)—have joined the Teamsters. If the UTU-BLET merger is consummated, ROCU expects the merged union will be part of the IBT as well.
The initial focus of the ROCU campaign is to get resolutions in favor of merger passed by BLET divisions and UTU locals. “ROCU supporters are going to take this issue straight to the members,” said Ed Michael from BLET Div. 724. “The goal of our resolution campaign is to spread the word about the need for a democratic merger of the BLET and the UTU.”
ROCU has built a network of rank-and-file supporters across the nation totaling nearly 400 members, drawn from both the UTU and the BLET, from all the major carriers, at nearly 100 different terminals.
Division on the Rails
Rail carriers have historically taken advantage of the old craft union divisions on the rails to push through concessionary agreements that reduce crew size: “Right now we’re in a race to the bottom,” said Hugh Sawyer, the newly-elected Local Chairman of BLET Div. 316 in Atlanta.
“The carriers keep us at each other’s throats,” Sawyer said. “When I started out 18 years ago, I worked on a train crew with five other union members. Now that’s down to two because we haven’t united. We need all rail labor under one banner.”
Fighting Remote Control
In 2002, the UTU national leadership made an agreement with the carriers that allowed remote control operation (RCO) of locomotives in switching yards. In a number of rail yards around the country, most switching operations are now performed by RCO, with no engineer in the cab of the locomotive. Out on the road, the current national labor agreements require two-person crews. But this standard is now under attack. The carriers—encouraged by their divide-and-conquer victory on the RCO issue—propose single employee operation of freight trains.
Since its founding in the spring of 2005, ROCU has campaigned against Remote Control Operations of locomotives and single employee operation of freight trains. In January last year, the BLET and the UTU finally agreed to a truce in the war between the two unions in order to fight single employee operation, but it is unclear how long this truce will last.
ROCU has put forward a proposed constitution and merger agreement for the merged union. Over 18 months in the making, the draft document is a composite of the ideas and vision of hundreds of BLET and UTU members. According to Ed Michael: “Our proposed constitution draws on the best democratic principles in the constitutions of the UTU, the BLET, and the Teamsters: one-member one vote, direct election of officers, and initiative and recall.” In fact, BLET members—with support from ROCU—have already won direct election of their top officers through a rank-and-file membership initiative last year.
“One thing we’ve left out of our proposal is any mention of protections for officers,” said Hugh Sawyer. “There won’t be any golden parachutes like so many other mergers. This merger is about protecting the members, not officers.”
The rail carriers have dropped their demands for single-person crews in this round of bargaining. But this summer, Union Pacific will begin testing new technology that could allow for train operation with only a single crew person, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Right now union contracts require operation by a two-person crew: a conductor and an engineer. UP will test two new technologies that might reduce the amount of crew control necessary to run a train, Positive Train Control and LEADER.
This summer the UP will test this new technology on the run between North Platte and South Morrill in Nebraska. It will run a second test in the fall on the run between Spokane, Wash. and Eastport, Idaho.
The first technology, Positive Train Control, uses satellites to track trains, and it allows a remote operator to alter or stop a train’s travel. Under the second technology, LEADER (Locomotive Engineer Assist/Display Event Recorder) a computer will give the engineer instructions on how to run the train.
Thanks to the joint opposition of the UTU and the BLET, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee has dropped its insistence on single person crews in this round of bargaining. But even as it backs off on this round, the UP is laying its plans for eliminating two-person crews in the future.
Similar Effort in BMWED Suffers Setback
In a resounding vote, Teamsters in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen have changed their bylaws to give members the Right to Vote for their national officers. Members voting in the mail ballot referendum cast their votes in favor of the change by nearly a two-to-one margin.
A determined group of engineers from Atlanta Division 316 put forward the idea of direct elections in October of last year. Within a few months, other divisions representing 25 percent of the BLET membership signed on. This triggered a provision in the BLET bylaws that called for a referendum of the membership, and in April every member received a ballot asking them to decide the issue.
In mid-June the ballots were counted and the result was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. If the membership had voted no, then the BLET would have continued to elect their national officers through delegates at conventions. But activists who put the amendment forward weren’t worried about that.
“We knew the members wanted this,” said W.L. Morris of Division 316, one of the architects of the proposal. “Since we’ve joined the IBT, we have the right to vote for our International officers. Why shouldn’t we have that same right in our National division?”
Ed Michael, President of Div. 724 and candidate for International Teamsters Vice President, agreed. “BLET members deserve the right to hold their leaders directly accountable, and the carriers need to know that our leaders have the confidence of the members they represent. This is more democratic and will make us stronger at the bargaining table.”
Earlier in the week, delegates to the BLET Convention in Las Vegas elected national officers for one last time. Future elections will be based on one member, one vote: unless the entrenched officers are able to figure out an end run around the will of the membership.
Activists Work to Expand the Right, Others Work to Undo It
Some BLET General Chairmen and Vice Presidents have already been making plans to have another referendum two years from now to undo the right to vote. That is the soonest that such a petition could be circulated according to the bylaws.
“We do have to be vigilant in making sure that the powers-that-be don’t steal this victory from us,” says Hugh Sawyer, the Local Chair of Div. 316. “But I think any attempt to rescind this initiative will be a minefield for those whose only argument can be that the rank and file are too stupid to make the decisions. I think the members will reject any such effort.”
As every strategist knows, the best defense is a good offense. The network of BLET members who fought for the right to vote for national officers would like to see a similar effort at the General Committee level.
“General Chairmen are the officers that members most depend on to fight for our bread and butter issues. We have good General Chairs, and we have bad ones, but all of them should have to stand for election by the members,” says Brad Thompson of Div. 442 in Missouri. Currently General Chairs are selected by the Local Chairmen of each division in the Committee.
No initiative has yet been circulated to change the bylaws to make such a change, but a proposal was submitted to the BLET convention that would have brought direct election to the General Committees if it had been adopted. The delegates, under direction of the majority of General Chairmen, voted the provision down and also defeated an effort to have the vote reported out through roll call.
BMWED Faces Higher Hurdle
Rail Teamsters in the BMWED (Maintenance of Way) do not have the provision in their bylaws that BLET members used to obtain a referendum. Instead, activists for the right to vote had to try to persuade the delegates at the BMWED convention to approve one-member, one-vote. This was quite an uphill battle and the reformers fell short. Led by Hoffa running-mate Freddie Simpson, the delegates rejected this proposal, saying that they were capable of speaking for the membership.
This is not the first time the Right to Vote has been raised at Maintenance of Way Conventions, and with the success of BLET members in this area, it may become harder for future delegates to continue to reject direct elections.