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How a Railway Workers Union Won New Technology That Improves Jobs and Reduces Greenhouse Gases

By Karl (Fritz) Edler, BLET Div. 482, retired, Special Rep, Railroad Workers United, Washington, DC - Labor Network for Sustainability, December 16, 2016

This is the story of one group of workers who used their union to improve their own conditions – and fight climate change – by proposing and winning their own plan for investment in improved technology. It provides an inspiring example of how workers and their unions can take their own action to reduce their employer’s greenhouse gas emissions while improving their own jobs.

Union railroad workers at Amtrak’s Washington, DC terminal use “small platform” locomotives to make up and service passenger and commuter trains. These diesel-electric locomotives use diesel engines to generate the electricity that is used to provide the motive power.  Their small size is a key advantage in the close quarters of terminal yard operations.  The units that are currently in use are almost a half-century old, and are far behind modern standards and goals for diesel emissions.

Several years ago the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, through its DC State Legislative Board, foresaw a looming dilemma. Without action, these aging diesel-powered locomotives would be kept in service with as little maintenance as possible until they were beyond recovery. At that point they would be replaced — with the lowest price most likely being the prime consideration.

This meant that the workforce and the public would endure ever-worsening diesel particulate emissions as long as the highly-polluting engines were kept in service. When they would finally replaced, the replacement locomotives would not have the kinds of work qualities needed for best practices in train operations.  Replacement units would most likely be harder and more unwieldy to work.

The union’s State Legislative Board devised a plan to modernize the locomotives now with more energy-efficient engines using an advanced technology known as “gen-sets.” That would reduce pollution and provide higher work life quality while reducing fuel costs. It would also preserve the “small platform” that made terminal train operations safer and easier.

The Union approached the Washington, DC area Council of Governments (MWCoG) to put together a proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had an existing grant program to replace diesel powered equipment with less polluting equipment.

Once we had determined for ourselves that gen-sets could accomplish what we needed on all fronts, we set about finding the necessary partners to press for winning the grants.  As a Union, this meant we had paramount concern for the effect on all work forces involved.   But first we had to get Amtrak to agree.  Our concerns about this equipment were not on the Corporate radar in any way when we began.  We began touring the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment, MWCoG and EPA personnel around our property so they could see for themselves the scope of the problem.

Amtrak was initially reluctant, but the Union-initiated partnership pressed for and won grants from the EPA to repower two locomotives using gen-sets. There was still a substantial resistance within the Corporate structure who were driven by fear of change.  But we eventually found Corporate partners who, if not fully convinced of the value, were at least interested in the possibility of using “other peoples’ money” for what would otherwise be strictly Corporate Capital dollars.

Because this effort was spearheaded by the Union, we were in a commanding position when important decisions were made about the employee worklife quality details of the project. This included many issues of human factors on the equipment that would normally never be considered in railroad purchasing decisions, like placement of devices and ergonomics.  For instance, we were able to insist and get placement of securing brake equipment in the cab of the locomotives which eliminated one consistent source of workplace injuries.  It was specifically due to our role that these locomotives from the 1950s were returned to us with Air-Conditioned cabs, an unheard of worklife quality improvement.  Most importantly, it prevented years of additional environmental pollution (adversely affecting crews most of all) followed by bad replacement decisions.

The initial two units of this project had to prove themselves to the work force and Amtrak. But after a couple years, they have shown the wisdom of the project. The result has been proven significant reduction in pollution and fuel use, ensuring a cleaner and more sustainable future for the surrounding community as well as for the women and men who work with the locomotives daily.

Today, because of that success, we are past the administrative hurdles, and again with help from the EPA and the Council of Governments, we will shortly be shipping an additional two units for repower. Washington Terminal has a total of 9 such units. The current project will mean 4 of those are cutting edge compliant for diesel emissions. It paves the way for us to complete the fleet, making it the most advanced in the Amtrak system and one of the most advanced switching fleets anywhere today.

The main point we like to make about this is that it absolutely required the Union to get out front in the demand that the only sustainable way forward for rail transport is making rail the green alternative. We know the railroads themselves are incapable, for various reasons, of doing this on their own.

Conditions like what we faced would likely be present in many industries, but our Unions often are hamstrung to make improvements by a combination of belief that important work place decisions should always come first from the employer, and fear of somehow getting outside their comfort zones.  Many Unions have a kneejerk fear of being in the room with “Environmentalists” because of legacy job protection concerns.  This outlook denies Union activists openings that can open the way to a sustainable work future.

The reward we get for being the proactive and aggressive driver of this effort is real, tangible, present-day quality of work life improvements, better health, and a cleaner neighborhood going forward. We also won more of the workforce to see why their Union needs to be less the silent “partner” of the corporation and get out in the lead of what’s necessary if railroad workers are going to have good jobs in the future.

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.