By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, August 12, 2014
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.
“There’s a real rank-and-file rebellion going on right now,” says Jen Wallis, a Seattle switchman-conductor for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway. “People who’ve never been involved in the union, never went to a union meeting, they are showing up and they’re joining Railroad Workers United in droves.
“People are saying, ‘We have to take action now to stop it. We can’t let our union officers do this to us.’”
What’s all the fuss? On July 16, thousands of railroaders abruptly learned their union officers had held secret negotiations with BNSF, one of the country’s biggest freight carriers, and reached a deal to allow single-person train crews: a safety disaster.
Ballots on the tentative agreement went out in early August, and are due back in early September. If the vote goes up, huge freight trains could rumble through towns across the western U.S. with just an engineer onboard, no conductor.
This would be a first on a major railway, and a foot in the door for the whole industry. BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest people.
“Members had no clue this was even coming,” said John Paul Wright, a locomotive engineer working out of Louisville, Kentucky. “The membership is basically saying, “What in the hell is going on? We never thought our own union would sell us out.’”
Wright is co-chair of the cross-union, rank-and-file group Railroad Workers United, which has been campaigning against the looming threat of single-person crews for a decade. With just weeks to go, its members are suddenly busy sending out “vote no” stickers and appealing to local labor councils to pass resolutions backing two-person crews.
“We weren’t expecting it this soon,” says Robert Hill, a BNSF engineer in Spokane, Washington. “We were expecting it.”
Railroaders are seeking out RWU and a new Facebook group, “Spouses & Families Against One-Man Crews,” to get information and coordinate the push for a “No” vote. Much of the opposition is being led by railroaders’ family members.
Engineers and conductors are represented by separate unions. The conductors, members of SMART, are the ones voting on this contract.
“This vote will affect far more people than just the ones that vote on it,” said James Wallace, a BNSF conductor in Lincoln, Nebraska, and RWU co-chair, “because it is going to set a precedent for all freight railroads in the U.S., and potentially endanger the job of every conductor in this country.”