Craft Union Conflict Railroads Workers

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) are conducting merger talks. At first glance, this is not that surprising, considering that many smaller unions (like the BLE) are amalgamating into larger ones these days. Also, from an industrial union standpoint, this merger is not simply a hodgepodge amalgamation like some of late. A merger between workers in the rail industry and those in the trucking industry in theory does make some sense. These workers are all in freight transportation, after all.

However, what is curious is that when courted by the United Transportation Union (UTU), the BLE has rejected, not once, but twice in the last few years, attempts by the UTU to form a single union in the railroad operating craft. Even more curious is the fact that the UTU, while representing tens of thousands of switchmen, brakemen, and conductors who work daily alongside their engineer co-workers in the locomotive cab, the UTU represents a substantial number of engineers itself. Why, then, the failure of these two organizations to form a single union?


Back in November 1998, leaders of the BLE and the UTU agreed, in principle, to a merger. The two were very close to concluding an agreement when a rebellion broke out in the BLE against the president and plans for merger. A recall election in September 1999 saw President Clarence Monin removed from office by a razor-thin margin. Just over half of the rank and file voted, and of these 50.03% voted to oust Monin. The merger was off.

Granted that only a quarter of the membership voted to remove the president, but the question remains--why were so many engineers so adamantly opposed to a UTU-BLE amalgamation that they took the unprecedented action of recalling a president?

The logic of a merger between craft unions of workers who share such an intimate workspace continued to be compelling. Ironically, BLE and UTU members probably have a closer relationship than any other two sets of union members in the country. Since 1985, the ranks of engineers have in most cases actually been drawn from those of the conductors. The two crafts work very closely together and develop a trusting relationship. Their safety--literally their lives--is in each other's hands. There is deep camaraderie, solidarity, friendship, and respect between them.

Merger talks quickly resumed in 2000, this time under the leadership of new BLE President Ed Dubroski. The merger question would be put to a rank-and-file ratification vote of the respective unions. In November 2001, the UTU ballot count resulted in a 6:1 ratio in favor. Three BLE officers challenged the process and had the first set of BLE ballots impounded. Finally counted in December 2001, the BLE membership voted down the proposed merger by a 5:2 margin. Once again, why were so many BLE members opposed to a consolidation?

The opposition was led by a contingent of disaffected BLE officers who stood to lose out under the terms of the merger. In addition, rank-and-file engineers were angered by what they saw as exorbitant golden parachute provisions whereby all top officers of both unions would make out handsomely. All would maintain their positions and/or receive generous early retirement benefits.

Some feared that the merger might require a dues increase; others that the UTU, the larger of the two unions, would dominate the smaller BLE. Still other engineers felt that the BLE had a more democratic structure and constitution, which might be threatened by the merger. In addition, some members expected--with good reason--that instead of one big union of the operating crafts, the merged union would simply usher in one big(ger) bureaucracy.

Finally (and unfortunately, not insignificantly), the old craft union attitude of the most backward-looking BLE members could be counted on to oppose the merger. One of the nation's oldest and historically most conservative unions, the BLE has a long history of elitism and exclusivity. As traditionally the most "skilled" craft on the railway, engineers have often relied on their knowledge and skilled position, rather than intercraft solidarity, to defend their interests. To this day, some engineers feel they are more important than other railroaders and believe that an engineers-only union, free of members from other crafts, is the best hope for the preservation of their craft and their livelihood.


Despite the dramatically different outcomes in the merger referendum, the two unions are in fact, very similar. Both operate from a similar paradigm, one that accepts the parameters of the Railway Labor Act with its myriad web of restrictions on the right to take self-help (i.e., strike). Both unions know from recent history that any industrial action will be immediately quashed by the White House and Congress, regardless of which party is in control. Yet lacking any alternative vision or strategy, both continue to put the full resources of their respective unions at the disposal of the two major political parties.



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Neither union is willing to defy the law, court injunctions, or congressional or presidential decrees. And neither union bureaucracy is interested in mobilizing its ranks to take action (other than to donate to their respective PACs and to lobby their elected political representatives). Both have a fatalistic view of the future, accepting their weakness in the face of the combined power of the carriers and the federal government.

However, the UTU believes that the crafts it represents are more vulnerable to downsizing and outright elimination. Over the past two or three decades now, train crew size in North America has been shrunk drastically. Firemen were eliminated, followed by switchmen, flagmen, and brakemen. Today, most train crews, both road and yard, are conductor-engineer only. In general (but not always), the UTU represents the conductor, and the BLE the engineer.

Here is the crux of the matter. The carriers would like to move forward with even more job elimination. The rail companies, after years of decimating train and enginemen's ranks--leaving the U.S. with the "most productive railroaders in the world"--now want to operate with single-person crews, and have been making moves in this direction. As the union that represents the "driver," the BLE has felt confident that the role of its members is relatively secure. The UTU, representing the less secure of the crafts (the "helpers"), has been more favorably disposed toward a merger.

Of course, there are many other good reasons to form a single union in the "operating crafts," or for that matter, a single industrial union of all rail labor. These include increased solidarity, heightened power at the bargaining table, an end to carriers playing one union off against the other, an end to union scabbing and petty inter-union conflicts, and a whittling down of duplicate union bureaucracies (currently 14 unions represent workers on the nation's railroads).


At the moment, the BLE's go-it-alone strategy appears to have failed. In a move that matches the BLE's typical appeasement tactics, during the last year or so the UTU has wholeheartedly embraced remote control technology and one-person operation of yard jobs all across the country. Beating the BLE to the punch in the "race to the bottom," the UTU agreement has the potential to eliminate thousands of engineer positions. Conductors receive only minimal

training for their new duties, but for a few dollars more per shift, they continue to perform their own work in addition to operating the locomotive via a remote-control belt pack.

Besides the elimination of countless union jobs, implications for health and safety are obvious. As recently as February 17, a CSX trainman was killed in a remote-control accident in Syracuse, New York. Ironically, back in 2000, it was then-UTU President Charlie Little who would deride the BLE for its support of remote-control technology on regional railroad Montana Rail Link. The BLE, he said, planned "to put more union employees out of work in favor of unsafe and deadly black boxes [remote belt packs]....They [remotes] are a danger to every operating employee."

The UTU's support for remote-control technology has added fuel to the fire in the ongoing BLE-UTU war, deeply disturbing the engineers union. As the UTU trumpets its new-found adoration of remote control, the BLE pickets and files lawsuits against it. In addition, the remote-control debacle has outraged a number of the UTU's own rank and file, a portion of whom are themselves engineers.

The carriers, of course, are laughing all the way to the bank. They are hoping to force the next round of job consolidations on the road trains. Here, the companies would no doubt love to eliminate the conductor position, much to the chagrin of the UTU. Given their work on remote control in the yard, the UTU can hardly look to the BLE for support when thousands of road conductor jobs face the axe.

The "craft war" is in full swing on the nation's railroads. The tragedy that has beset the operating trades on the railroads is a prime example of the futility and failure of craft unionism. In fact, the BLE-UTU war is the logical culmination of over a century of organization along craft lines. We are witnessing a similar spectacle with the fratricide in the building trades.

But there is an alternative to this destructive path, one espoused over a hundred years ago by the American Railway Union (ARU) and its brilliant founder, Eugene Victor Debs, General Secretary and Treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. The ARU was a union of all railroaders from all crafts. It did not wait passively for politicians, lawyers, or the union bureaucracy to take up the cause of rail workers. Instead, it relied on the solidarity, direct action, creative tactics, mass participation, and mobilization of its rank and file to defend the interests of its membership.

In the face of automation and downsizing, job consolidation and elimination, increased harassment of employees, deterioration of safety, and attacks on the union contract, the need for united action by all of rail labor is more imperative than ever. In light of the UTU-BLE debacle, the bankruptcy of traditional craft unionism should finally be glaringly obvious to all workers in the rail industry. The need for one big industrial union on the railroad is not only preferable; it has become imperative for our very survival as union railroad workers.