Rail Reform Group Wins Victories in Quest for Cross-Union Unity, Democracy

Since its founding in the spring of 2005, the rank-and-file reform group Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU) has been plugging away at organizing around the twin themes of rail labor unity and internal union democracy.

After a year of hard member-by-member organizing, ROCU, whose members come from the United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET), has some reasons to celebrate.

First, back in February, leaders of UTU and BLET called for a truce in the long-running war that has wracked the two unions for years. UTU President Paul Thompson and BLET President Don Hahs issued a joint statement of unity, agreed to put a halt to their respective raiding activities, and called for a united front against rail carriers’ proposals for massive givebacks in the current round of bargaining.

ONE MEMBER, ONE VOTE

More recently, the rank and file of the BLET voted in mid-June nearly 2-to-1 in a union-wide referendum to amend the BLET constitution and allow for a one-member-one-vote mail ballot method of electing top union officials. ROCU quickly threw its full support behind the campaign, which was initiated by BLET Division 316 in Atlanta, upon learning of it last fall.

After failing to achieve their goal through the BLET convention, last year the division began working through another channel in order to achieve direct elections: a member initiative.

The BLET constitution, unlike many unions’, provides the members the right to an initiative. When 25 percent of the members sign a petition, the national office is obliged to send a mail ballot to all the members in good standing for a vote on the question.

By March 2006, with the support of ROCU and BLET activists around the country, Division 316 had gained the support of divisions representing just over the required 25 percent. When the ballots were counted in June the results were clearly in favor of building a more democratic union.

“It’s an exciting and unique opportunity [for us] to become more actively involved in determining the direction of the union,” said Ed Michael, president of BLET Division 724 and a founding member of ROCU.

BOTTOM-UP MERGER

While ROCU activists do not believe that a one-member-one-vote election process is a cure-all, the group feels it is a major step in the right direction. “Even though the [vote] was a major accomplishment, it is just the starting point in what we need to do,” said W.L. Morris, local chairman of BLET Division 318.

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Hoping to build on the enthusiasm that the one-member-one-vote victory generated, ROCU has begun organizing around a draft constitution and UTU-BLET merger agreement written by rank-and-file members. The last merger attempt in 2001, brokered by officers of the International, was voted down.

ROCU has drafted a constitution that provides for greater membership participation, democracy, and rank-and-file control of the union. ROCU has selected 15 highlights from the proposal and is distributing them to yard offices, crew rooms, stations, and locomotives all across the continent (the complete text is available at http://www.rocutoday.com/page.php?7).

“We feel that the combination of cross-craft unity and solidarity, combined with internal union democracy that empowers the membership, is a sure winner,” says Jen Wallis, a member of BLET 518 in Seattle.

ROCU has drafted a constitution that provides for greater membership participation, democracy, and rank-and-file control of the union.

As ROCU sees it, the battle is to first get the information out and then get it to a direct membership vote, using the same model as the successful one-member-one-vote campaign.

The UTU constitution, however, lacks any provision for member initiatives. ROCU is encouraging UTU members to bring the question before local union meetings to garner support for the merger agreement and constitution.

After acquiring the backing of locals across the United States and Canada, ROCU hopes to win support for the idea at the UTU international convention. A ballot would then be mailed to all UTU members.

“The membership is inspired by the victory by our brothers and sisters in the BLET,” said Union Pacific conductor Jim Eubanks, a member of both UTU 656 and BLET 182 in Little Rock. “If we can get this [ROCU’s proposed merger agreement and constitution] into their hands now, there’s no telling what we may be able to achieve.”


Ron Kaminkow is a member of BLET Division 27 in Milwaukee and a locomotive engineer for Amtrak.