Trainmen & Engineers Say “No” to Conductorless Trains
Holding the Line on the W&LE
It's been nearly 2 ½ years now since bargaining commenced
between the Wheeling & Lake Erie (W&LE) and
the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen
(BLET) for a new contract for engineers and trainmen on
this Midwest regional carrier. Negotiations have "gone
nowhere" as the two sides are diametrically opposed on
the issue of single employee train operations.
By August of 2013, things came to a head when the W&LE
insisted upon single employee operations of trains, while
the union stated that they would never accept such conditions.
Then on September 13th and 14th, the carrier unilaterally
opted to run a pair of trains with a single manager.
The engineers and trainmen of BLET #292 went on strike
September 20th, but they were quickly ordered back to
work under a temporary restraining order (TRO) by a federal
judge. The strike by more than 100 union members
completely shut down the railroad's operations in Ohio and
Pennsylvania. Bargaining then resumed on the 23rd.
However, the company remained intransigent and refused
to negotiate the issue of single employee crews.
Since then, no negotiating sessions had been scheduled
throughout the winter and spring. For nine months the two
sides did not meet. Finally, after Local Chairman Lonnie
Swigert's efforts, including a barrage of phone calls to
Mediator Jack Kane, the NMB, the BLET national office,
numerous BLET VPs and the General Chairman, the mediator
scheduled a bargaining session for June 10-12th
in St. Louis. Predictably, the carrier remained steadfast,
and refuses to bargain on any issues unless and
until the union concedes to run trains with a single
employee. The union is holding fast, determined
to stop any effort by the W&LE to open
the door to single employee operations.
"We're willing to negotiate anything but one-man crews" says Swigert. "They won't negotiate anything without one-man crews and we will never accept single employee crews. "I feel like this is a gateway. I'm sure Class Ones are in support (of one man trains), but they don’t want to be the first ones to do it. I do see this being a bigger issue than just us. It's about greed and putting profits over personal and public safety."
Regional carrier Wheeling & Lake Erie has been
aggresively pushing single employee crews for
more than a decade, resulting in a previous contract
impasse that the union claims left workers without a raise
for eight years until a 2008 contract was finally ratified.
Unable to win single employee operations at W&LE, the
carrier then assisted the Maine, Montreal & Atlantic
(MM&A), another smaller regional railroad, to do just that in
early 2013. Just a few months after such operations commenced,
a single operator was assigned to a heavy train of
crude oil that ran away down a steep grade into the town
of Lac Megantic, Quebec where it exploded, devastating
the town and killing 47 people. CEO of the MM&A at the
time was none other than Ed Burkhardt, who just happened
to also sit on the Board of the W&LE. According to
BLET President Dennis Pierce, "The WLE bankrolled Ed
Burkhardt's failed one-person operation on the Montreal,
Maine and Atlantic to the tune of a $25 million loan." In the
1990s, Burkhardt headed up the anti-union Wisconsin
Central, where he had pushed for single crews.
Railroad Workers United stands ready to assist these
brothers and sisters in any way possible. The RWU
Executive Committee met the day after the strike to explore
ways that we could build support throughout rail labor and
the general public for the W&LE workers. RWU adopted a
resolution of support and a program of action. We have
assisted the workers to gain public exposure and build contacts
with supporters, and have provided them with buttons
stickers, flyers and bumper sticker all proclaiming "No
Single Employee Train Crews!" We have in effect adopted
them as the “advance guard” in the forefront of the struggle
against single employee crews.
It is apparent that the W&LE is determined to be the rail
carrier to pioneer single crew member train operations.
Their intransigence at the bargaining table, their willingness
to support other railroads who are making similar
attempts at such operations, and their brash statements
and actions to this effect leave no doubt they are serious.
But the union and its members are serious too. According
to LC Swigert, "On September 20th of 2013, with just 16
hours notice, we had 100% compliance (with the strike
call). The men stood on the line and were willing to strike
for days, months if necessary. And when we are “released”
we will do it again if we have to.” Swigert is adamant that
single employee train crews would be a dangerous development
at the W&LE. “One man crews are not an option
for us. In dark territory, and with the lack of safety features
on our railroad, we will never accept one-man (operations
of trains) on our property.”
BLET Division #292 is committed to taking the necessary
measures to ensure that they win this fight. The have
proven their valor and determination last September when
they went out on strike and shut down the W&LE operations
100%. But they cannot win this battle alone. They
need the support of their General Committee, the BLET
National Division and the rank and file members of their
union from around the Midwest and across the nation.
They need the rest of rail labor - particularly from the Sheet
Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Union - Transportation
Division (SMART-TD) to come to their assistance as well.
And they need the support of environmental and citizens
groups who are concerned about public safety.
This struggle is of vital concern to all of rail labor.
We have seen countless episodes in past decades where a single
shortline or regional railroad adopts a new technology, procedure
or practice, only to have it spread like wildfire
throughout the rail industry to all the big Class 1 carriers as
well as other smaller roads. If the W&LE succeeds in its
efforts at single employee road train crews, it would represent
a huge foot in the door for the rail industry. It could
spell the beginning of the end for the road conductor in
North America. As such, it is imperative that the SMART
recognize this fight as their fight and lend whatever assistance
they are able. After all, it is SMART who holds the
contract and represents the vast majority of the trainmen in
the U.S. Likewise, the Teamster Canada Rail Conference
(TCRC), the union that holds the contract and represents
most trainmen in Canada, should also throw their weight
behind this cause. The international border is very transparent
these days, and what happens south of it most
assuredly will take root to the north as well.
At the end of the day, the workers on the W&LE just might
have to strike or take other job actions once again to stave
off this attack. If and when they do, we need to be ready.
Throughout the last few decades, we have witnessed a
number of key strikes by workers in several industries -
meat packing, paper, corn processing, newspaper and others
- where a small local waged a heroic "David vs.
Goliath" fight against a company … and lost.
We must ensure that BLET Division #292 does not end up being
added to that list.
RWU challenges the BLET National
Division to step up to the plate, together with the SMARTTD
and others and put the full weight of the organization
behind these brothers and sisters. To do nothing less is to
betray not just our fellow workers on the W&LE, but every
trainman and engineer in North America.
For more information: www.railroadworkersunited.org