Sick of Scandals, Locomotive Engineers Fight for Right to Elect Officers

Rank-and-file members of the Locomotive Engineers are struggling to maintain their recently won and never exercised right to directly elect officers. The importance of one member, one vote elections, opposed by national union officers, is only too obvious after three top officers in four years have been removed for embezzlement or extortion.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen is the product of a merger with the Teamsters in 2004 and represents more than 50,000 locomotive engineers, conductors, brakemen, firemen, switchmen, hostlers, and other train service employees.

Since 2006 the drive for reform in the BLET has been spurred as members watched their national president be removed from office by the Teamsters Independent Review Board for embezzlement of union funds. One vice president left office for the same reason, while another suddenly resigned his position, for reasons unknown, and quietly slipped away.

Last year the succeeding national president left office after he was arrested and charged with extortion.

Corruption went hand in hand with surrender on the job. Congress has mandated that by 2015 trains must have wireless data systems on board to prevent collisions, and rail companies are gunning to use the technology to reduce crews to one-person operations. BLET leaders don’t have plans to resist—and at contract time, they make excuses instead of mobilizing the membership to fight.


Elections for national officers over the years had morphed into a good-old-boy system of backroom deals and lines of succession where seniority trumped ability and merit. This was possible because the elections were held by delegates at the national convention. With many mid-level officers controlling blocs of delegate votes, rank-and-file candidates could never mount a serious campaign for office and progressive reformers faced an uphill battle.

Reformers made sporadic attempts at conventions to change the bylaws to allow rank-and-file election of officers but were rejected by delegates each time.

Throughout all the recent wrong-doing, however, none of the remaining national officers spoke out or demanded a full investigation into the misuse of members’ dues. Nor did they make attempts to enact changes to prevent a re-occurrence. They did nothing to reassure members that scandalous behavior wouldn’t happen again.

So in 2006, Local Division 316 in Atlanta used a little-known section of the BLET bylaws called “initiative” to force a referendum vote among all members. It changed the bylaws to require a democratic, rank-and-file election of national officers.



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Even though many national officers openly campaigned against the initiative, rank-and-file members voted overwhelmingly to approve the change. The first rank-and-file election of officers is to take place in fall 2010.


All was quiet as preparations began for the 2010 election. The rules for the rank-and-file vote were published, the election supervisor was appointed, and the field was opened for candidates to throw their hats in the ring. The opportunity for progressives to democratically fight corruption in our union seemed ripe. A nucleus of a national slate began to develop.

Suddenly in late December, four BLET local divisions—one of which is the home division of a national officer—began an initiative process to kill one member, one vote elections. They make the same sort of excuses that national officers trotted out in 2006.

They say that delegate votes have served our Brotherhood well from its founding in 1863, that direct-election rules are too complex, that officers will have to travel and fundraise for campaigns, and that most members aren’t involved in the union so decisions will be made by a minority.

Of course, the opponents of direct elections might fear just how much motivation members have when they’re finally given a say!

To succeed, opponents must win over enough local divisions to claim that 25 percent of the membership supports killing direct elections. If they can, the entire membership will take part in a referendum vote.

Outraged BLET members nationwide are not standing quietly by, letting the schmoozing, smoke-and-mirrors convention elections be resurrected. Many have come together as BLET Members for Democracy. We have begun a campaign to ask members to attend their local division meetings and vote against the proposal. We are making phone calls, passing out flyers, and using electronic communication and conference calls to educate members and local division officers.

We’re using every means possible to stop this attempt to throttle democracy in the BLET and to ensure members get their first-ever chance to elect their national union officers.

Ed Michael is a member of BLET Division 724.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #371, February 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.