In the wake of the recent imposition of a new national rail contract, over widespread rank-and-file opposition, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) elected a new national president. Edward A. Hall, a working engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad and a local officer in Division 28 in Tucson, Arizona, won 53% of the vote. Hall ousted long-time BLET president Dennis Pierce in national balloting during November.
Also in November, BLET members voted on a new national contract. With nearly two-thirds of the membership voting, it was approved, but 46.5% cast ballots against the proposal. This contract was largely crafted by a Presidential Emergency Board, convened by President Biden who then brokered the final deal in September, hours before a strike deadline. Pierce led the union in the national negotiations that began in 2019 and supported the final agreement. In December, this same contract was then imposed by Biden and Congress on all the rail unions.
In the midst of the contract dispute, Hall won a place on the BLET ballot with support from 5% of the delegates to the October 2022 union convention. Following his nomination, he wrote to the membership:
“It is clear to me that the national membership is dissatisfied with our leadership and the decisions made by them when it comes to a National Agreement. Polls were taken resulting in over ninety-nine percent of those that responded instructing our leaders to withdraw from service if an agreement could not be reached on our quality-of-life issues… However, once all provisions under the Railway Labor Act were exhausted and a legal strike was warranted, our leaders chose to bury their heads in the sand.”
Hall added: “You will now hear the political posturing and grandstanding on what a great job they did and that it is now time for the membership to decide. I believe the membership made their decision a long time ago. Dennis R. Pierce just didn’t listen!”
Pierce claimed there had been “an issue with the election that in accordance with union rules would have required a revote,” according to one rail news website. Although the site also reported, “it was unclear what exactly those issues were.” But Pierce then announced his retirement and the election results have stood.
On January 10, after taking office, BLET President Hall said on the union’s website, “We don’t want to just talk to members or talk at them, we want to listen. The members of this union are in the driver’s seat. I’m planning to spend much of this year traveling the country to railyards and union halls to meet with members and hear their thoughts on how this union can better serve them and what we can do to make their jobs better.”
With the decades-long steady decline of the organized labor movement, changes in top officers are often of little interest to rank-and-file workers. Most union elections appear to many to be the “ins” versus the “outs.” New faces have rarely led to new policies, practices, or more rank-and-file control of the unions. One sign of this lack of rank-and-file interest is that in the 28,000-member BLET, the vote was 4,331 votes for Hall and 3,822 for Pierce, with some 20,000 members not voting.
Although time will tell whether the new BLET leadership changes course significantly, the situation in the rail industry today is noteworthy. The new contract imposed on rail workers is utterly inadequate and leaves unchanged the intolerable conditions of work and life they face. But rank-and-file workers were able to put their stamp on the fight. They succeeded in bringing these conditions to the attention of the entire working class and the broader population for the first time. In doing so, they won widespread support. Rail workers accomplished this despite widespread bureaucratic misleadership among the many rail unions. (For more information, see Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership, Workers Need Our Own Party.)
The latest contract, like others before it, was not settled until years after the previous agreement expired. As a result, as BLET First Vice-President Mark L. Wallace noted on the union website, “We have a year before we’re back at the table to negotiate a new national freight rail agreement.”
Many rank-and-file workers want the unions to fight more effectively the next time around, a sentiment that was expressed in the open letter from Railroad Workers United (RWU) to Ed Hall, which World-Outlook is publishing below for the information of our readers. RWU is a rank-and-file group that brings together members of all rail unions.
Geoff Mirelowitz and Marilee Taylor
for the editors of World-Outlook
RWU Letter to BLET President Hall
January 6th, 2023
Dear President Hall:
Congratulations and best wishes for a positive and productive Presidency of the BLET. We hope there is a smooth transition of power from the previous administration, and that you are able to lead with support from other Executive Board members of the union. Please do not hesitate to call on RWU if there is anything we can do to assist.
As you may know, RWU is committed to principles of democratic unionism and fought hard to achieve one-member-one-vote for top officers in the BLET. When that newfound right was threatened to be taken away by an initiative four years after being won, RWU went all out to defend the right of every member to vote, and the initiative that would have destroyed this democratic process was soundly defeated. Your election victory last month is the fruit of this previous struggle for union democracy.
In addition to our fervent belief in union democracy, RWU also is a proponent of cross-craft solidarity and trade union unity. For the last 15 years we have pushed for all rail unions to work together and to actively cooperate. Ultimately, we believe that rail workers – like so many other industrial workers – need to have ONE powerful union. In the meantime, we will continue to advocate for universal cooperation and coalition between the myriad craft unions. There have been some positive steps in recent years in this direction, including the alliance between the operating crafts and the near universal bargaining coalition that was established this past year. While an advance over previous years, this movement towards unity and solidarity must be nurtured and pushed forward as the only way for the individual crafts to succeed and win. United we stand, divided we fall!
Finally, we believe that we can best further our agenda for better wages, benefits and working conditions (including the preservation of the two-person train crew) when the membership is informed, encouraged and otherwise involved in all aspects of running the union. A union is only as strong as its membership, and an active membership ensures a strong and democratic union.
We hope you agree with these ideas and principles and find them as useful guideposts in the years ahead. Again, RWU stands ready to aid and assist in any way that we can for you to succeed in building a stronger and more vibrant, membership led BLET going forward!
Yours in Solidarity,
The Railroad Workers United Steering Committee
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Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions