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Fighting for Safety and Unity on the Rails

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The safety of rail workers was a common thread for the delegates and officers of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED), holding their conventions in 2018. Convened in order to discuss and vote on changes to their union constitutions and to nominate and elect officers, it was also a time for delegates from across the country to get reacquainted with their brothers and sisters working to keep America’s rail systems running.

Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President, addressed the BLET delegates on the first day of their convention on the themes of union power and safety.

“You have always been out there fighting for your members, making sure you had the eight-hour day, safety on the job and more. We continue the battle against the elimination of two-person crews on trains. They want drone trains and drone trucks. Can you imagine driving down the road, you look in your rearview mirror and there’s an 18-wheeler coming up with nobody behind the wheel? It’s a big battle out there every day to make sure we get our job done.

“Teamsters in West Virginia fought back against being underpaid—they marched, they got the attention of the media and they won! And in Missouri, union members came together in solidarity and they fought back against the threat of right to work, and they won! This is union power! The Teamsters and the BLET—we don’t back up, we don’t back down and we sure as hell don’t get pushed around!” Hoffa said.

For the Fourth National Convention of the BLET, Dennis Pierce, National President, focused on the founding principles of the brotherhood and the current assaults by corporations and government forces on the well-being and safety of union members, namely right to work.

“As I speak, bills are sitting in the Senate and the House that would do the following: remove right-to-work exemption for the Railway Labor Act, outlaw all union shop agreements and make payroll dues deduction agreements illegal. The purpose of these attacks on wages by the same corporate and economic actors for over 80 years is to take the American worker back to the days before the New Deal.”

In his concluding remarks, Pierce said, “The BLE survived—and thrived — because of its core ethic, which dates back to 1863…each member has a personal obligation to be informed, and the responsibility to act in concert with other members. In other words, we must be united moving forward!”

BLET Delegates Share Knowledge

There was a wide variety of members attending the BLET convention as delegates. Some were members for many years and have attended conventions in the past, while others were first timers. Dana Marlow, for example, is the general chairman for the Union Pacific Southern Region General Committee of Adjustment, and this was his third convention as a delegate.

“I attended with 28 delegates representing 32 divisions of Union Pacific,” Marlow said. “I was hired on the Katy railroad in 1979 and when I was hired everything was by sight—there was a depot agent every eight to 10 miles. They would put train orders on poles which we would grab. A lot has changed since then.”

Jay Anderson, a BLET member for 10 years and a local chairman of Division 695 in Minot, N.D., said that this was his first convention. “This was very informative. We are going to take a lot of information back to our members.”

Anderson also said that many of the speakers made good points about standing with politicians that believe in working families and that it’s important to stand up to those who don’t.

Improved Safety with Political Support

In tune with the common concerns of rail workers, two keynote speakers highlighted safety in their remarks. Although the number of rail accidents has declined over the years, both the BMWED and the BLET have lost members since their conventions in 2014.

“You have dangerous work, hard work. Politicians should be willing to make the changes that are necessary to support working people,” said Ken Hall, Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer. “They should be willing to stand up when you’ve got safety issues on the job and create laws and regulations that protect workers.”

Jennifer Homendy, a newly appointed member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), spoke about her commitment to the safety of unionized workers. Homendy outlined how the board has required railroads to install devices in dark territory indicating the position of switches to train crews and mandated the use of emergency escape breathing apparatus.

“You are on the front lines every single day when it comes to safety. I need you to continue fighting day and night for your safety, for the safety of other train crews, for the safety of other crafts and classes on the railroad and for the safety of passengers,” Homendy said.

Preparing for the Future of BMWED

The growth and future success of the BMWED was front and center in BMWED President Fred Simpson’s remarks to delegates. “We have aggressively embraced the responsibility of assuring that our union and its current and future leaders are united, educated and trained in the ways of union leadership, union administration and union ideas.”

One program at the core of these plans was the formation of the Communication Action Team (CAT). Simpson described the initiative as a way to strengthen the union, while also assisting with internal organizing.

“The CAT team has visited many BMWED worksites, listening to members’ needs and concerns and engaged in conversations about the future of the Brotherhood,” he said. Simpson further explained how the outreach of the CAT team has resulted in over 1,400 members becoming involved. The use of social media, in particular Facebook, has resulted in members receiving more information about the union’s programs than ever before.

“When the Facebook page for the union was launched in 2014, it had 800 followers,” he said, noting that it has more than 10,000 today.

Simpson outlined how important the CAT and social media programs were for gathering union support for the continued battles against the rail carriers’ desire to use drones for track inspections as well as for improved protections for on-track equipment operators.

“I work with a traveling crew and they usually don’t get updates on the union’s business or go to meetings while on the road. I get updates on union concerns through Facebook and then I let my team members know about any developments,” said Scott Peterson, a BMWED delegate and member of the CAT team.

“We simply cannot sustain our livelihoods and advance our cause or protect our brothers and sisters and ourselves from railroad’s full-on attacks if we do not stand together. Our fate rests in our strength of unity and our commitment to each other,” Simpson said.

Delegates to the BLET’s convention re-elected Pierce as National President and Steve Bruno as National Secretary-Treasurer. Simpson was also re-elected as BMWED President and David Joynt was elected Secretary-Treasurer during the BMWED’s convention.