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Trainmen & Engineers Say “No” to Conductorless Trains

By J.P. Wright - Railroad Workers United, July 11, 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.

Holding the Line on the W&LE

It's been nearly 2½ 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.

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