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.”