Rail Machinist Opens Bid for District Presidency
Rail workers have captured the nation’s attention since September, when their showdown with the Class I freight railroads reached a near-breaking point.
Now, in the fallout of what many members feel has been a botched negotiations process, some are taking action in their union halls. After three years of negotiations, a contract rejection, and a strike authorization, the union ended up with a deal that fell short of many members’ demands without using all their leverage.
Reece Murtagh, a 12-year member and local chairman of Lodge 696 in Richmond, Virginia, has announced his candidacy for the top spot of Machinists (IAM) District Lodge 19.
The 7,500-member Machinists district represents rail mechanics who work on locomotives and heavy machinery; two-thirds of them work on the Class I freight railroads.
Three weeks after Murtagh’s announcement, the incumbent executive board announced its re-election slate under the slogan “Change is Coming to IAM District 19.”
That slate is made up entirely of candidates who are already serving as national leadership. But notably, incumbent president Kyle Loos is not on it.
Loos took office as president just a few months ago, on July 1. As is common in the District, he made his way to the top spot through resignations and appointments.
Loos had been elected in 2019 as a General Chairman—a national role equivalent to a business agent, responsible for one rail line or employer or group of workers. Another General Chairman, Andrew Sandberg, is running for the presidency on the incumbent slate.
For Murtagh and his “Challenger Slate,” just getting on the ballot will be a major fight—only one slate of candidates who don’t already hold national office has ever made it that far in the District’s arduous nominations process—and winning would be historic.
But this round of negotiations has also been historic. For the first time since 1970, Congress has imposed an agreement on a national rail union in the absence of a strike or lockout. (It was imposed on several of the other rail unions, not the Machinists, who ratified an agreement with largely superficial modifications after the first was rejected.)
Murtagh and his supporters are hoping that widespread member discontent with the process and the outcome puts an upset victory within reach.
Working members often face an uphill battle when challenging incumbent full-time union officers; in the case of Machinists District 19, the structure and bylaws of the union provide some particular challenges.
The District Lodge is a national network of dozens of local lodges. Under the freight rail contract, 49 lodges from California to Maine cover the 4,900 freight rail members. The rest, around 2,500 members, in eight other lodges, work on regional and local systems like the Long Island Rail Road and the Colorado and Wyoming Railway.
Just to get on the ballot, a candidate has to be nominated by 15 percent—nine out of 57—of the local lodges. To be nominated by a lodge, a candidate has to be submitted by another member in good standing at a special February meeting, and then win a nomination vote against any other candidates for the same position at another special meeting in March.
Once on the ballot, a candidate has to then find a way to campaign across the entire country, attempting to reach a membership scattered across the nation’s railroad networks. Although formal use of union resources is forbidden in electioneering, incumbents have the obvious advantage of name recognition.The actual election, if any challengers are nominated, takes place at a meeting in June.
A challenger slate made it onto the ballot in 2019—the first time in decades. General Chairman Lee Carter, the first woman to hold a general chairmanship across any rail union, was on it.
The nominations math that year was such that “you had to have 12 lodges to nominate you to even be put on the ballot,” Carter recalls. “So most people just go with the incumbents because they’ve heard the names before. Where I threw that little bit of a monkey wrench was because I could get the 12.”
A local chairman who spoke with me on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation recalled one incumbent candidate pushing local lodges to “lose” challengers’ nominations. Others alleged that member email lists were misused for campaigning, and incumbents were sent on union business to regions they had no official role in representing, for side meetings and get-togethers where they would fundraise and campaign.
This week, 50 members of Local Lodge 706 signed a petition filing a complaint against Chairman Andrew Sandberg, who’s running for president, for visiting the Barstow, California, locomotive shop “for the sole purpose of campaigning and gaining name recognition for the upcoming election.”
In 2019, eight challenger candidates made it onto the final ballot, and despite the uphill battle, they won about 40 percent of the vote.
BIDEN RAISED HOPES
It has been more than three years since the latest round of rail bargaining began. The process plodded along as the union jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the Railway Labor Act, delayed further by the Covid pandemic.
The unions filed for mediation in January of 2022, two years in—as soon as a Democratic majority was secured on the National Mediation Board.
In years when an agreement isn’t privately reached and ratified by the employers and the unions, the NMB and the presidential administration play an active role in shaping an agreement. The president appoints a panel of experts as a “Presidential Emergency Board” to make non-binding recommendations for a contract settlement; the employers and the unions can decide whether to accept its recommendations. The PEB report usually forms the basis for tentative agreements to be ratified by union members.
The strategy of the rail union leaders this year was to push through mediation and into a PEB as quickly as possible. The thinking was that, with a labor-friendly Democrat in the White House, the unions stood a better chance.
Union leaders were telling the local chairmen, “‘We’re going to get a favorable PEB because of the political landscape,’” Murtagh recalls. “And sure enough, the mediation happened incredibly quick. That was cool. That was in our favor.” But, according to many members, the PEB was not.
‘IT’S OUR TIME’
Members, too, were optimistic. Murtagh says workers were excited, talking on the shop floor and on coffee breaks about their contract progress.
“We were like, it’s our time. Look what Biden put on Twitter yesterday: ‘unions built this country.’ Look what [Labor Secretary] Marty Walsh tweeted. The excitement was big, man. This time nothing was against us.”
In August, the Biden-appointed PEB came out with its recommended framework for tentative agreements with the rail unions. It recommended a 22 percent raise over five years, removing a cap on cost-sharing for health care premiums, and adding a single personal day—not the 15 paid sick days that the unions had been demanding.
“Everyone was like, ‘Is it out yet? Is it out yet?’ recalls Murtagh. “We were like kids on Christmas morning.’” But when the details came out, Murtagh likened workers’ reaction to the child’s disappointment in the classic movie A Christmas Story: “It’s like the kid looking for the BB gun and he gets the [bunny suit]. We’re like, ‘Oh. Ugh.’”
The big disappointment was the lack of any sick days. Railroad workers currently have none. Throughout negotiations, union leadership had stuck to their demand for 15 paid sick days, and had dropped other demands to focus on winning the sick time. “They made a lot of concessions in other areas to hang onto the sick days, is what the informed membership thought,” says Murtagh. “We didn’t think we were getting 15 out of them, but we thought at the minimum, a week.”
After the PEB, each union forged its own path forward. Some turned the PEB’s recommendations into a tentative agreement and sent it to members for ratification. Others, like the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), added side agreements for specific carriers.
The rail Machinists sent a tentative agreement out to the membership for a vote—alongside a strike authorization vote in case the deal didn’t pass. On September 14, the results were announced: 63 percent of voting members had rejected the contract, and 89 percent had voted to authorize a strike.
THE STRIKE THAT WASN’T
As the clock ticked towards midnight that day, the end of the first cooling-off period for both the companies and the unions, the government scrambled to reach new tentative agreements with the other holdout unions.
In a marathon negotiating session, the two largest unions, the Sheet Metal Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), as well as the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), reached their deals with just hours to go before their strike deadline.
But District 19 was not at the table—even though the Machinists, like the BRS, had rejected a tentative agreement and authorized a strike.
That’s because, with hours to go until a strike, union leaders had changed their own deadline. In a brief letter to members, President Loos announced that the offer had been rejected and a strike authorized, but “I also want to inform you that out of respect for the other Unions in the ratification process an extension has been agreed to until September 29, 2022, at 12 p.m. ET. This extension will allow us to continue to negotiate changes with the NCCC in hopes of achieving an agreement that the membership could ratify.”
Many members were incensed. Chaz Smith of Lodge 27 in Kansas City went to a meeting with a General Chairman after the vote, and most people there were furious. “A lot of people felt they were betrayed by their union, and they didn’t follow their wishes,” he said.
“We legitimately thought we were striking,” says Murtagh. “We went around our shop; I got everyone’s phone number and email address, we were going to do three shifts. We were excited, man. We were like, ‘We’re striking, yeah!’ Christmas morning was back.”
CALLS FOR NEW LEADERSHIP
Murtagh penned a letter to District 19 leadership asking why, and under what authority, the strike deadline had been moved.
“Every person that voted was aware there was a possibility of a contract being forced onto us if we did strike and everyone made their own personal decision knowing this information,” he wrote. “This disregard for the members’ vote has taken away all credibility and broken a trademark union rule, ‘Respect the Vote.’”
Two days before the district’s September 29 strike deadline, leaders came back with a new tentative agreement. It looked much like the one members had rejected, but added a cap on monthly health care premium payments (which had been part of the government-brokered deal with the other unions on the eve of the original strike deadline), codified single-room-occupancy lodging for traveling mechanics (a common practice but not previously protected by contract language), and added provisions to bargain over travel expenses and to conduct a “joint study” on overtime.
“Instead of striking, they bargained for a few pittances and sent it back to us,” says Smith, “and it really ticked us off they didn’t come back with anything solid.”
Nonetheless, the new agreement was narrowly ratified in November by a 52 percent yes vote, with just 59 percent of members voting.
Back when Smith started working on the railroads 23 years ago, “we had a union that was willing to stand up to the company and represented its membership,” he said. “That’s slowly slid by the wayside and grayed out.”
Now, he says, “there’s calls for mass resignations for our leadership.”