Railroads’ Demands Bring Unions Closer Together

In a remarkable about-face, the leadership of the United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) issued a public statement in early February, proclaiming solidarity with one another and calling off--at least for the moment--their long standing feud.

The cease-fire is coming none too soon, as major rail carriers look to impose major concessions on unions in national contract talks.


Back in November 2004, the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC)--the umbrella organization that represents the nation’s major freight railroads--proposed the elimination of the crafts of both engineer and conductor, and their replacement with the new combined craft of “transportation employee.” Additionally, they proposed that carriers then be allowed to operate trains with a lone employee.

Neither the UTU nor the BLET’s leaderships sounded the alarm or mobilized its members, but a group of concerned rank-and-file members did. Last spring, a cross-craft, inter-union coalition of UTU and BLET members formed Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU) and began to organize around a platform of rail labor unity, rank-and-file democracy, a BLET-UTU merger, and a fight against single employee train operation.

In early 2006--after the carriers’ demands were made public and the NCCC walked out of bargaining and threatened a National Mediation board (NMB) impasse ruling--rail union leaders finally rang the alarm. Outside of lobbying the NMB, however, no strategy has been announced.


ROCU, on the other hand, has drafted a proposed plan of action (see below) and is circulating it among the UTU and BLET rank and file. ROCU is urging both unions to reach out to local communities for support in this struggle.

For ROCU, the statement of solidarity between UTU and BLET is an early breath of spring. Another positive sign was the UTU’s recent announcement that it would trim its bureaucracy to cut costs and return the union to its 1970’s vice-president-to-membership ratio, eliminating a number of vice president positions over the next few years. This move takes yet another page right from the ROCU playbook.

Given the dire threat posed by the NCCC’s aggressive bargaining stance, given the need for the greatest possible unity in rail labor at this time, and given that there may just be a looming financial crisis brewing in the UTU, an outright merger between the two unions could be on the horizon as well.



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“The rank-and-file does not want to settle for just any old business-as-usual merger agreement,” cautions Ed Michael, a ROCU activist and Union Pacific engineer, “We want a merger based upon our proposal for a democratic rank-and-file based union.”

Strategy to Fight Back Against Single Employee Crews

Finally, the leadership of the BLET and the UTU have taken the first tenuous steps toward fighting back against single employee operation of trains. They have made a public pledge of solidarity and called a truce to all hostilities between their respective organizations. They called on the membership to engage in a lobbying effort of the NMB. The carriers have returned to the bargaining table. Great!

But we know it will take a lot more effort than this to bring the carriers to heel. Their goal is single employee operation, and they are intent on achieving it. If they succeed it will no doubt be a disaster for the operating crafts and, in fact for all of rail labor. Therefore, Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU) proposes the rail unions craft a strategic fight back plan to win.


The unions should call for an all-out mobilization of the membership, and provide the resources, training and leadership NOW. There is no point waiting until its too late. We not only have ourselves, but we have countless allies across the country to assist us. Folks will not take kindly to the idea of hazardous material laden freight trains blasting through their towns with just one lone fatigued “transportation employee” aboard. Therefore, we suggest that the general committees, locals, divisions, and rank-and-file membership be mobilized to do the following:

  • Write letters to the Editor.
  • Call local press conferences to get the word out in the newspaper, TV and radio.
  • Educate the membership of their rights, duties and obligations in the event of a strike or other industrial action.
  • Informational picketing at grocery stores, schools, and other public facilities close to the tracks.
  • Hand bill union workers in factories, mills and warehouses along the tracks.
  • Go door-to-door in neighborhoods adjacent to mainline railroad tracks.
  • Outreach to local governments.
  • Outreach to environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Green Party, and others.
  • Outreach to schools, student organizations, teachers’ unions, etc.
  • Work with local labor councils.

While the coalition building and garnering of public support outlined above is vital and necessary, ultimately this is our fight and must be waged by us. We need to let the carriers know that we are serious, and that if it becomes necessary, we are prepared to take “self help” action as provided under the railway Labor Act. Therefore, we call upon the leadership of the unions to make immediate preparations for industrial action. We suggest the following:

  • Educate the membership of their rights, duties and obligations in the event of a strike or other industrial action.
  • Call for a special assessment upon the membership to quickly build up an effective strike fund.
  • Begin the process of building strike support committees in communities all across the continent.
  • Encourage locals and divisions to set up picket committees and picket captains.
  • Engage in “Practice Picketing” at rail facilities to prepare the membership and to show the carriers that we are serious.

Call on the rest of rail labor and the labor movement generally to be prepared to lend us their assistance, not cross our picket lines, and not to handle struck freight.
This “plan” is by no means comprehensive. There are an endless number of creative and innovative tactics that the members can employ once their energy and creativity is cut loose. Start to think about what you can do. It’s up to all of us to get involved in this fight for our jobs, our livelihoods, our crafts and our unions.