Dear RWU Members & Supporters:
It is exciting news that both BLET President Dennis Pierce and UTU (SMART) President Mike Futhey have "broken their silence" on the issue of single employee train crews in the wake of Lac Megantic. In their efforts to halt single employee operations they certainly have RWU's full support. Nevertheless, RWU reserves the right to criticize, to coax and cajole, and to prod them to move this vital campaign forward! Please read the attached article.
A Discussion of the
BLET and UTU
Response to Lac
On July 6th, an unmanned oil tanker train, that had been operated engineer-only and secured by him, ran away from its securement, hurtled into the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, derailing, exploding, reducing a significant portion of the town to rubble, killing approximately 50 people and injuring countless more. Within two days, the engineer was being publicly scapegoated by the railroad’s CEO and now faces criminal charges. Two weeks later, on July 19th, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers &Trainmen (BLET) President Dennis Pierce issued an official statement on the subject of the Lac Megantic tragedy and the pressing issue of single-employee train crews. Perhaps in response to this statement, United Transportation Union (UTU) President Mike Futhey issued a statement on August 8th, addressing the same issue. RWU wholeheartedly supports Pierce’s position that the BLET spearhead “a nationwide effort to end single-person operations” and Futhey’s stand that we honor the victims “by fighting for change”.
However, we do take some issue with their delayed response, the contradictions between past deeds and present words, and their vision of the forms this fight may take. Given the stakes involved for us as rail workers, as well as the public, validated by the horrifying magnitude of this tragedy, we feel that a few constructively critical observations are in order.
Pierce cites “respect for the grieving” as the reasoning behind not commenting on this tragedy for almost two weeks before stating, “I can no longer remain silent”. RWU believes rail labor should quickly make its voice heard whenever such an important issue makes national news and the public’s attention is focused on the question. It is not often that the public notices the railroad. When it does, it offers us an invaluable opportunity to get our point of view across. Ed Burkhart (President of the MM&A Railroad) certainly got his view out there in real time. Likewise we need to get the truth in front of the news media and before the public. To their credit, the Steelworkers union in Canada quickly spoke out in defense of the engineer and condemned MM&A’s actions.
Futhey takes credit for “submitting petitions to governmental agencies and by talking directly to the carriers”, only to lament that, “Unfortunately our demands for safety regulations, either arbitrarily or voluntarily have fallen on deaf ears”. We wholeheartedly applaud both Pierce and Futhey when they take the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to task for their non-regulation of railroad safety when it comes to single-employee crew operations. The FRA has the power to enact regulations to make railroad operations safer and is quick to do so when employee mistakes make the news. However, prior to this tragedy the FRA had been virtually silent on the subject of single-employee crews. Every railroader (whether they be rank-and-file or elected union leaders), the public and our congressional representatives should be constantly asking the FRA why they are opposed to making railroad operations safer by regulating crew size.
Pierce Invites SMART (UTU) to Join the Effort
RWU agrees with Pierce when he invites the UTU to join the BLET to fight single employee train crews. However, we cannot ignore the past struggles for unity between the two unions on this issue. It was January 31st, 2006 when the UTU and BLET presidents linked arms and declared “we will never tolerate single employee crews!” Unfortunately this rare unified defiant stand would have a limited shelf life. The next year the BNSF and the BLET reached an on-property agreement to allow RCO outside of the confines of the yard and expand its use to the road (a key component the carriers seek to be able to employ conductor-less trains on the road). And who would be the proud operator of the RCO box on a single employee train? The BLET represented engineer would. A few days later UTU President Paul Thompson wrote a scathing letter to BLET President Paul Sorrow accusing the BLET of back stabbing treachery and a failure to live up to the agreement to oppose single employee train operations. That was the end of the short-lived agreement between the two unions on the question of single-employee trains. It’s worth noting that the general chairman at this time of the BLET’s BNSF General Committee that negotiated this language and sold it to his members as great “job security” was Dennis Pierce. Meanwhile, the UTU proceeded to allow single-employee RCO yard operations. RWU will continue to publicly demand that the two unions unite once and for all behind this life-and-death issue, and put the interests of engineers and trainmen ahead of suicidal, self-interest driven jurisdictional squabbles.
Burkhart Runs Single-Employee Trains “because he can”
Brother Pierce tells us that Ed Burkhart, CEO of the MM&A, runs trains with a single-employee “because he can”. Doesn’t this beg the question, “Why can he?” He “can” because the unions and the carriers have negotiated the language that opens the door to allow for this practice. For much of the last decade the only voice in the wilderness that has been actively opposing single employee crews has been RWU. He “can” because the unions have done next to nothing to educate the public about the dangers that communities, like Lac Megantic, face with the single-employee operation of trains. He “can” because the unions unconditionally accept the terms of engagement that keep us in a virtual straightjacket for any meaningful fight for safety. He “can” because the regulatory agencies are more concerned with the carriers’ needs and interests. The fact that the MM&A has been running single-employee trains south of the border for some time no doubt pressured the Canadian government to allow a waiver for the MM&A to do the same thing on the other side of the border in 2012, thus setting the stage for the tragedy in Lac Megantic. Burkhart, like any other railroad carrier CEO, can run trains with a single-employee train crew – if the public, the government, society and the workforce let them. Our job as a union is to stop this from happening!
It’s worth noting here one more explanation. He “can” because for decades the unions have done virtually nothing to challenge the attacks on our wages and working conditions that escalated with the proliferation of “short line” railroads, most of them spun off from the major carriers. At worst the unions and contractual agreements were eliminated with the stroke of a pen and the shuffling of a few papers. At best the unions remained to sanction and legitimize these attacks or managed to recoup what was left of their lost dues base once the dirty deeds were done. The “short lines” have proven to be useful as the testing grounds for the future attacks on the major carriers’ workforce. Without a national standard of wages and working conditions, we will continue on this spiraling death race to the bottom.
Why Did It Take So Long?
Brother Pierce has been the BLET president for four years, while Brother Futhey has been the UTU president for six years. Over that time they both have remained virtually silent on the whole question of single-employee train operations. RWU sent certified letters regarding this issue to both the BLET & UTU presidents in the spring of 2011. We received no response. We tried again in the fall, asking the two union heads to make a public statement against single employee crews. It is very telling that neither union president saw fit to take a position that 90% or more of their members would say is a very important issue. We believe it is sad that valuable time has been lost when we could have been educating the public across the continent to enlist their support in actively fighting the scourge of single-employee train crews.
Their Strategy to Fight Single Employee Crews
Pierce and Futhey are now taking a long overdue, defiant stand against single-employee train crews, but they want to limit us to just two ways to do it: legislatively or at the bargaining table. Although a campaign to convince Congress to act against single-employee crews could possibly succeed (especially in the aftermath of Lac Megantic) it must be pursued vigorously, immediately and with the active participation of rank-and-file railroaders and public organizations. And while we might possibly be able to bargain language insisting on two person crews (very unlikely), there is so much more we can and must do.
What Else Can Be Done?
First, we need to educate rank and file railroad workers that the carriers have in fact desired and have proposed operating trains with a single employee. We should alert all rails that single crew operations in the yard with RCO take place all the time now. We need to build upon the anger and resentment that railroad workers feel towards this deadly practice and tap that energy for action.
It is past time we brought this issue to our central labor bodies to alert the entire labor movement to the prospects of single-employee crews. Countless environmental and community groups must be enlisted to be our allies in this struggle, as none would want to see single employee crews putting their neighborhoods and this nation’s land, air and water as risk. We can pressure the carriers to back down from the deadly single-employee crew idea through pickets and rallies, petitions and letter writing, phone call and emails blitzes. We need to show the rail carriers that if they attempt to implement single-employee train crews, it ain’t gonna work!
We applaud Brother Pierce and Brother Futhey for speaking out publicly against single-employee train crews. It is up to all of us to get behind the campaign to stop single-employee crews, to hold all of our union leaders accountable, and demand that they commit the resources to mount a creative and militant campaign to stop the carriers’ plan for single-employee train crews in its tracks. But it has been over two months now since the union presidents issued their statements of outrage at single employee crews. Other than President Pierce's bold statement about a national campaign, neither union has taken action. Where is the campaign, the leaflets, the bumper stickers, posters and flyers? What have the members been asked to do to get involved in this campaign? How do we plan to impress the rail carriers of our determination and dedication to preventing single employee train crews? While we wait for Pierce and Futhey to back up their tough rhetoric with real action, RWU will continue to advocate against this dangerous practice anywhere, anytime, in any way that we can.
PO Box 1053
Salem IL 62881