Railroad Workers Today: The Industry Picks a Fight

Part One of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Railroads conjure up nostalgia for some and offer a glimpse of a promising transportation future for others. Yet the railroad industry is as cutthroat as any in the country. With its unique regulatory framework, its exemption from many labor laws, and its central role to the economic life of our continent, railroads hold tremendous power. Now, a growing group of railroad engineers, conductors, yard workers, maintenance workers, signalers, mechanics, and others employed in the rail industry are uniting to hold railroads accountable for worker and public safety. Railroad Workers United is a network of railroaders from Florida to the Yukon, and they are raising the profile of the forgotten folks who actually make it possible for a train to get from Point A to Point B. This winter I will be writing a series of posts documenting the conditions for workers on the railroads and how they are organizing to protect working conditions and the safety of themselves and the public.

In late 2004, the rail industry group National Carriers Conference Committee initiated bargaining with their workers’ unions by proposing a decimation of workplace standards and pay. They attacked health care. They concocted a scheme to reduce liability in the case of workplace injury. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, they proposed that henceforth, trains and their often hazardous cargo would be sent hurtling through cities and towns and wilderness with only one employee on board.

Changes in regulation and technology had already permitted the carriers to significantly cut the crew size of most trains down to two: one engineer and one conductor. (The engineer is responsible for the engine and the conductor is responsible for the train of cars that follow the engine.) The carriers had also pushed through remote control operations of locomotives in switching yards—a practice RWU leaders say has led to the injury or death of many workers. The writing was on the wall: the NCCC wanted to initially eliminate the crafts of “engineer” and “conductor” and replace them with a “transportation employee.” This proposal came in the context of much hype about the ability to control trains anywhere without having any employees on board. The ultimate goal appeared to be not just to cut the workforce in half, but to eliminate it altogether.

Unfortunately, the rail unions were far from united in facing this assault. Thirteen different crafts each bargained separately with the carriers, trying to get their own piece of the pie, even if it meant harming another union and its members. The issue of remote control operations had left a particularly bitter taste in the mouth of many union members, with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union each blaming the other for the implementation of the new technology. These two unions nursed a longstanding rivalry that for years had worked to the carriers’ advantage in bargaining. In 2004 the BLE, hoping to boost its clout, merged into the Teamsters union, and began trying to entice conductors out of the UTU and into the Teamsters, further aggravating tensions.

With the rail disunity and the aggressive stance of the carriers, it looked like workers might lose a whole lot of ground in the round of bargaining. That’s when a small group of rank and file members of both the UTU and the BLE (now called the BLET after the merger), joined forces to organize against the assault.

“When the NCCC proposed the idea of ‘Transportation Employee’ and the elimination of the craft of engineer and conductor, it was seen by many of us as the last straw,” says Reno engineer Ron Kaminkow. “After three decades of whittling away at train crew size, now they wanted us to operate all alone out there, to do it all. It was high time we drew a line in the sand and said, ‘Enough!’”

My next post in this series will address the beginnings of a rank-and-file fight back against both the carriers and union leadership that seemed to care more about old grudges and wounded pride than about the reality on the ground for their members.


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2 Responses to “Railroad Workers Today: The Industry Picks a Fight”

  1. Robert Hill Says:

    Great article thank you I have spread this through RWU message board, my blog, and via e-mail…. Hopefully folks will wake up

  2. erstwhile luddite Says:

    Thanks Robert. I would love it if folks chime in about their thoughts and experiences at the time the NCCC made this proposal.

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