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Railroad Workers Fight Proposed Job Consolidation

By Jon Flanders - CounterPunch, October 13, 2015

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.

With the unprecedented scrutiny freight railroads are now under due to oil train wrecks, and with record profits on the books, you would think that the major carriers would be unusually solicitous of their mechanical maintenance workforce, the people that are the doctors in the shop “hospitals” that treat the defects of locomotives. But you would be wrong.

One leading class 1 carrier, CSX, is demanding unprecedented changes in the working agreement of its
machinists and pipefitters, changes that could potentially turn the lives of these workers upside down. A “Master Mechanic” tentative agreement (TA) is currently being discussed in its locomotive shops.

In a promotional press release a CSX spokesman said: “This agreement is part of CSX’s focus on promoting a flexible workforce to meet changing business demands, and developing opportunities to retain and support our highly skilled workforce,” said Cressie Brown, vice president-labor relations, CSX.

The CSX press release quoted the head of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 19 in support of the agreement. “This tentative agreement provides new options for CSX employees, giving them more control of their careers, by expanding on the efficiencies gained from our previous partnership at Huntington, West Virginia while providing CSX with the tools they need to have the most efficient locomotive maintenance team in the industry,” said Jeff Doerr, IAM President and Directing General Chairman.

The Huntington “partnership” saw machinists and pipefitters foregoing former job descriptions in return for keeping locomotive rebuilding from outsourcing. There was no merging of union representation however, a “ratio” of machinists to pipefitters assured the two unions of their dues. The same ratio deal goes along with the proposed tentative agreement. So for example perhaps 85 percent of the jobs going forward would be machinists, 15 percent pipefitters.

Threatening major layoffs if the machinists and pipefitters, members of the International Association of Machinists(IAM) and the the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMART) fail to ratify it, CSX is pulling out all the stops to see the TA passed.

The agreement states: Master Mechanics’ work shall consist of the work described in the classification of work rules of the predecessor agreements, specifically Rule 41 of the IAM Agreement and Rule 43 of the SMART Agreement, which are reproduced in Appendix XIII to this Agreement. To the extent that the referenced classification of work rules refer to work being done by a particular craft or being divided between two or more crafts, this Agreement supersedes such provisions and such work can be performed by Master Mechanics and Student Master Mechanics in accordance with the terms of this Agreement.

This clause would effectively gut work rules and job descriptions of the affected members, allow merging seniority rosters in a way that would force laid off workers into unwanted moves to other shops. Shops which are spread out all over the east coast and southeast, from Selkirk, New York to Waycross Georgia for example, if they want to maintain their employee protection agreement. It would accelerate already onerous requirements for overtime as the workforce is made more “flexible.”

Interunion strife would be aggravated. Merging rosters under the “Master Mechanic” label could put a pipefitter, for example, ahead of a machinist, in senority, despite the fact that the pipefitter never performed the major mechanical work involved in changing a turbo or a power assembly. And vis versa, when it comes to jobs like radiators that pipefitters traditionally performed. One can only imagine the ill will this could stir up on a railroad job site where seniority has always been incredibly important for a worker.

Collateral damage in this TA are members of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB). They are being laid off in significant numbers, leading to already stressed mechanics to be forced to take on their jobs, which often involves highly skilled welding work on locomotive wrecks.

This controversial TA takes place in the context of the carriers’ campaign of threats to force Congress to extend the time limit to implement positive train control (PTC). This life saving technology helps to prevent accidents like the recent Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia by over-riding an input from the throttle in the case of excessive speed, or an imminent collision, among other things. By laying off shop forces now the carriers can cry foul about lack of manpower, while at the same time saving money on any further PTC work.

A two year job guarantee has been promised if the Master Mechanic TA passes. Asked why the Machinists Union went along with this agreement, a member was told that under it “everybody would have a job”, a reference to the layoffs already under way by CSX. This reminds this correspondent of the Jesse Jackson quote, “Under slavery, everybody had a job.” As so often the case these days, union officers put dues paying jobs above maintaining decent wages and conditions for their members.

Announcement of the TA provoked a firestorm of protest at the initial meetings to discuss its provisions. Hundreds of union members are using social media to as a way to counter false rumors about support for the TA. Shocked union officers, who never told the ranks about the TA talks, stopped having meetings and declared the TA “off the table” for further negotiation. Meetings of employees led by management are continuing however.

Layoffs are what CSX management counts on to sway a vote on the TA. Many are under way, and at least one shop is threatened with closing. Reports from workers at the Corbin, Kentucky shop quote CSX officers as saying it will close as soon as January 1st. As of this writing no vote is scheduled on any TA, but it is reasonable to presume that with the holidays coming, and a thousand dollar signing bonus promised, a vote might be taken before long, either on the current TA or a slightly revised version.

Maintenance workers on the railroads are on the front line for public safety. They work in all weather, in cold, dirty and dangerous conditions, on, under and over locomotives and other heavy equipment. Management always pushes for production, wanting locomotives out pulling freight, despite mechanical problems. Often shop workers are the only people standing between defective equipment and the people who live near the tracks. It was a fuel leak on the lead locomotive that caught fire which led to the Lac Megantic catastrophe. The public, the rest of organized labor and activists campaigning for rail safety should back the beleaguered machinists and pipefitters at CSX in their fight for a union job that is worth having and performing well.

Jon Flanders spent 25 years as a Railroad Machinist, member and past President of IAM 1145. Steering committee member of Railroad Workers United. Retired.

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