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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.
UTU Trainmen Strike in Canada
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.”
How Long Can Rail Teamsters Go Without a National Contract?
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.
Rail Teamsters Push to Merge Rival Unions
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.”
Is Union Pacific Geting Ready for One-Person Crews?
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.
BLET Teamsters Win the Right to Vote
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.
Canadian Rail Teamsters Win Right to Vote for Their National Officers
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.
Dues Money Funds Vacations for BLET President’s Wife
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?
BLET Fails Trainmen in El Paso
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.