The Railroad Rank and File Build a Base


A cartoon from the early part of the 20th century still expresses many workers' frustration when unions fail to cooperate.

Part Two of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Throughout 2005 contract negotiations, union rail workers faced concerted attack by an industry that wanted to slash the workforce to dangerous levels, decimate health care, and weaken the method of compensation for on-the-job injury. While the industry was united in the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the thirteen different craft unions representing the workforce operated independently at best, and antagonistically at worst.  The United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the largest of these unions, were also the ones that clashed most often—and with the worst outcomes for its members.

Even though the members of the BLET (which represents most engineers and some conductors) worked right alongside the members of the UTU (which represents most conductors, some engineers and members of some other crafts), the leadership of the two unions often sought to undermine each other. For example, the industry was able to implement remote control technology on very favorable terms that undercut working conditions. Many railroaders believe that if the unions had stood united, this technology could have been prevented or at least have mitigated the impact on worker safety and job security.

In the past, efforts had been made to stop the feuding and actually unite the two unions, most recently in 1998 and 2000. However, proposed mergers never succeeded in winning the support of the majority of both unions. In rejecting the mergers, members were not only displaying some of the longstanding animosity between the groups, but were particularly concerned that such mergers would simply add a new layer of highly paid bureaucrats without doing anything to protect the rank and file from the employers’ attacks.

The possibility of ever bringing the two unions together seemed to end when the BLET joined the Teamsters in 2004. Once that happened, it meant that a merger could only happen if the UTU joined the Teamsters—which they were extremely disinclined to do—or if the BLET left the Teamsters, which, under the terms of their agreement, was only possible for a short window after joining. But then a funny thing happened. Ed Michael, an engineer on the Union Pacific and president of local chapter of the BLET in southern Illinois, took some of his precious free time to drive up to Cleveland one autumn weekend to attend the annual convention of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. TDU had been mobilizing Teamster members to push for reforms in their union since 1979. Along the way, they had made impressive gains, including giving members the right to vote to elect their top officers, pushing back against concessionary contracts, and mobilizing thousands to win a major strike against UPS. This appealed to Michael. He wanted to see if TDU would be open to working with the railroaders who had just joined the Teamsters through a merger. [Full disclosure: At the time, I was working for TDU and worked closely with Michael and other rail workers.]

TDU had been hoping to make contacts among these newest Teamsters and Michael promised to spread the word. Soon, he was organizing additional BLET members into TDU. But for all the opportunities the reform wing of the Teamster movement presented, it could not address the problem of fragmentation within rail labor.  “The UTU and BLET are the two largest unions in the rail industry,” says Michael. “Even though most of their members hold seniority as both conductors and engineers, the leaders of the two unions have been unable or unwilling to effectively combine their efforts to build the strength their members’ need.  They are more concerned with protecting their own fiefdoms and pointing the finger of blame at the other union.  Over the years, most every big loss of work rules we have suffered came at a time when the two unions were battling each other.”

Inspired by what he had seen rank and file Teamster members achieve, he and Amtrak engineer Ron Kaminkow began gathering a group of rail workers from the UTU and the BLET to discuss trying again to merge the two unions, but this time via a rank-and-file led effort. One of the leaders that quickly emerged from the UTU side of the equation was Jim Eubanks, a 38-year conductor from North Little Rock, Arkansas. When Eubanks heard about the concept, he called a meeting to see who else would be interested, and nearly 40 union members showed up.

“While the railroads use the proven ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, the UTU and the BLET battle each other and allow their members to suffer the consequences,” says Eubanks. “However, it must be pointed out that the officers of these labor organizations are not compensated under the same contracts as their members. Most upper level union officers receive six digit salaries with very good benefits and retirement packages.  If these officers/negotiators really wanted to inspire the members that they represent, they would accept wages and benefits that are equitable with their members. That would certainly motivate [officers] to secure better contracts for their members.”

Michael, Kaminkow, Eubanks, and others formed a new organization called Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU).  Together, they planned out a merger to do more than unite the unions; it would bring about important reforms such as the right of members to vote for officers, requirements that officers spend more time working in the craft, limitations on officer salaries, and protections to keep charges against union members from being used for political ends. ROCU meetings were open to members from any UTU or BLET member, and soon hundreds of rank and filers across North America publicly endorsed ROCU.

Many of the new supporters donated countless hours as well as money in hopes of merging the UTU and BLET into one union that could stand up to the carriers (ROCU itself never intended to be a union, but rather desired to merge the two existing ones). But significant logistical and organizational hurdles remained. ROCU realized it needed to build momentum by showing members an example of what can happen when the rank and file unite for a stronger union. My next installment will discuss the ROCU-supported campaign to win the right to vote for BLET members.


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