Keeping unions strong in the rail industry

(BLET Editor’s Note: The following has been excerpted from the March 2017 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News. It reflects remarks given by BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce on March 22, 2017, at an ATDA training class held in conjunction with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Train Dispatchers Association, a fellow Rail Labor union.)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, April 7 — I would like to start by thanking American Train Dispatchers Association President Leo McCann and Secretary-Treasurer Ed Dowell for the invitation to join you here as your Union celebrates 100 years of service to the nation’s Dispatchers.

It’s worth noting that the BLET and the ATDA have a long history of working together in our effort to provide the best representation possible. In fact, ATDA was a Division of BLE from 1993 to 2004, when BLE merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Although our formal affiliation ended at that time, our work together and our joint struggles did not. Whether it be through our mutual efforts within the Cooperating Railway Labor Organizations, of which your President serves as Secretary, or through our Coordinated Bargaining Group, BLET and ATDA routinely join together to not only best represent our collective members, but also to make the union movement as strong as it can be.

I don’t have to tell you that we are in a fight for the ages to protect the wages, and the health and welfare benefits that our members work so hard for. Unfortunately the Railroads no longer feel obligated to provide us the level of benefits that we have bought and paid for time and time again with our labor. They are pushing to redistribute their profits, which we help earn, to provide more for them and less for us. Time will tell as to whether or not they will get their way, but I can tell you now that unions in our Coordinated Bargaining Group are fighting hard to prevent that from happening.

Even more important are Rail Labor’s efforts to keep the union movement in America a strong one. I for one believe in the union movement; I know what having a union job has meant to me and my family, and I also know how quickly all of that could be taken away.

I started on the Burlington Northern Railroad almost exactly 40 years ago as a Maintenance of Way employee. I spent the better part of my first three seasons working in the track department, and proudly held membership in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes organization, which is now a Division of the Teamsters Rail Conference.

I then transferred to the clerical ranks, and became a member of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, BRAC, which is now part of the TCU. Several of the clerical employees that I worked with went on to become train dispatchers.

I later transferred from the clerical ranks, this time to the craft of Locomotive Fireman, a craft represented by the United Transportation Union, another union that I held membership in. And, finally, I promoted to the craft of Locomotive Engineer, and joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

I share this story for one simple reason. In early April I will celebrate my 40th anniversary as a proud dues-paying union member. I didn’t pay my dues to these four rail unions out of any obligation; I paid them because I know the value of a union job. Yes there were furloughs, I was forced to work away from my family for months at a time; but I also knew that I was accumulating seniority because of my union contract, and that I had insurance benefits that allowed me to start a family that I could take care of in times of sickness.

It was incredibly easy for me to be part of a labor union. Each time I entered a new craft, someone from the union contacted me to fill out my paper work to become a member. I didn’t have to fight for the right to belong to a union, and in some ways, I think it has led some railroad workers to take for granted that rail unions will always be there to provide representation and other services, without any action required on their part.

I stand before you today very concerned about our union movement. There are powerful anti-union forces working night and day to rid America of labor unions. Their so-called “free market” suggests that you would be better off on your own than you are as part of a concerted effort where we all work together for the common good. Ironically, they have even turned many of our own members against their unions, because the legal system that we labor under gives broad latitude to the railroads and other employers in the way that they treat their employees. The end result is that the employee feels slighted by the railroad, but he or she blames the union for allowing it to happen. Although I understand that level of frustration, I work tirelessly to try and explain to our membership how dangerous that viewpoint can be.

This all comes full circle when anti-union forces work to bring cynically-named Right-to-Work legislation to those of us who work under the Railway Labor Act. In reality, they are working to capitalize on those feelings that I just described; Brothers and Sisters who have been aggrieved in the workplace but blame their union, instead of their employer. They push Right-to-Work legislation, urging our members to abandon their unions the minute that they legally can. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the rail unions — and don’t think for a minute that it cannot happen.

Nothing could be more harmful to union-represented railroad employees than losing their union; yet not all of those employees know how high the stakes are. If any of you have ever worked for a non-union railroad, you know just how high the stakes are. If you lose your union, you lose your union contract. Things that many have taken for granted over years will simply vanish. Things like a seniority roster … the right to due process and a hearing before discipline is assessed … the right for those who do the same work to be paid the same pay; the list of benefits that come from our union contracts is a long one, and don’t think for a second that the railroad work-life experience would improve if they are taken from us.

To the contrary, the same employee who complains about his union not stopping the railroad’s abuse would now have no rights to even complain. Complainers are fired without a hearing in a non-union railroad shop. And the right to use your seniority to hold a preferred job? Those days are over in a non-union railroad shop. The boss’s buddies, or in some cases, his family, will hold those jobs.

When it comes to pay, get used to the boss’s buddies and family members making more money than you do. That’s just the way it works in a non-union railroad shop. And, finally, when there are drops in business, it’s generally the oldest — and not the must junior — employees who are laid off first because there is no seniority roster. They work 25, 30 even 35 years for their employer, only to be the first ones laid off when business drops. Try finding meaningful employment as a 55-year-old former railroad employee. It’s not an easy thing to do.

I don’t share these negative stories to depress you, I share them to motivate you. There is one thing that we can all do that stands in the way of the dark picture that I have painted; it’s called a strong rail union movement. If you have studied rail labor history — or labor history in general — you know that the stark picture I just painted was the reality of life for all American workers. Those were the conditions that led locomotive engineers to found my Union 154 years ago in May, and they led train dispatchers to form your Association a century ago.

When my Union was founded, there was no one to hand out membership applications. There were no legal protections for labor unions; in fact, the very first application of anti-trust laws in the late Nineteenth Century was against unions! What our forefathers did was to commit to one another in complete solidarity, willingly risking what little financial stability their families had for the common good.

They also risked their lives. In 1877 railroad strikes spread like wildfire through the country. Martial law was declared and federal troops were deployed. And when the militia opened fire on strikers and their supporters in Reading, Pennsylvania, 10 people were killed … including BLE Division 75 members John H. Weaver and John A. Cassidy. By the time the ATDA was founded, the days of the so-called labor riots in the railroad industry thankfully were behind us, but there still was no legal protection for your founders.

Everything we have today — from legal protections, to the level of wages, benefits and working conditions we enjoy today — came from the battles waged by those who founded our unions and those who followed them. These victories were not simply conceded by the railroads or the government … they were wrested from the hands of the wealthy and powerful by means of a genuine movement and a broad solidarity on the part of our predecessors.

Today — especially today — we must be mindful of the lessons of our history if we are to stave off the attacks that intend to turn the clock back and restore those reprehensible conditions. So what does that mean in terms of going forward?

First, we must tell our elected politicians — with a loud and single voice comprised of every Rail Union member — to leave the Railway Labor Act alone, and to drop the push for Right-to-Work legislation. It’s not fake news, Brothers and Sisters, that working class Americans who labor in Right-to-Work states make over $6,100 less per year than their counterparts in states that are not Right-to-Work. Anti-union forces may have given these laws a catchy name. They may make it sound like you are getting a right or a benefit, but don’t fall for this age-old bait and switch tactic. What you are getting is the right to work for less, so your employers can keep more; it’s as simple as that.

Join me in our fight to keep unions strong in the rail industry. Join me as we work to defend the provisions of our union contracts, many of them so engrained in our culture that they are taken for granted. Become a vocal union advocate in the workplace, let there be no doubt that we support the union movement, and that we support our rail unions. On this proud day of ATDA’s 100th anniversary, I want each and every one of you to make a commitment to work tirelessly to ensure that ATDA, and all of Rail Labor, is here to celebrate ATDA’s 150th Anniversary. Thank you all for your time.

Friday, April 07, 2017