Let’s Join Together To Fight For Your National Contract
By Dennis R. Pierce
BLET National President
(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the January 2017 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News.)
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, January 30 – In my last Newsletter message, I issued a Call to Arms for all BLET members to join in our fight for a fair national contract for Class 1 freight members. In the days and weeks since that call, the National Division has received many responses, and in this month’s message, I would like to discuss a theme that appeared in a few of those responses, and how we move forward.
First, it’s important to note that our Brotherhood is a member-run and member-led organization. As a BLET member, you have the right to run for Union office; you have the right to elect the officers of your Local Division and the right to elect the officers of the National Division. You also have the right to vote on your contracts, and in all of these efforts, the National Division actively promotes Get out the Vote efforts to try and make sure all members exercise these rights. As part of all of this, the National Division encourages all members to voice their opinions and I think it’s important for you to know that I personally read the vast majority of the comments we receive.
The feedback regarding my Call to Arms in late 2016 made it clear to me that there is much work to be done if we are to unite our collective strength behind this cause. There were many, many members that replied with a, “Tell me where to be when you need me” response, but there were also responses from some members who are so frustrated that they question the Union movement in general. My comments in this message are more directed to that frustration, as I share it in many ways.
When I hired out on the railroad, I was handed paperwork and told to sign up with the Union. Looking back now, and having met other Teamster members who have had to fight to get Union representation, I see how easy it was for me to be a Union member. Since that time, I have worked in multiple crafts at the railroad, and have belonged to four different railroad Labor Unions. I have endured furloughs, force assignments, mistreatment by railroad officials, and treatment by local Union officers who were at best indifferent to my personal situation. I don’t share that as anti-Union sentiment, I share it so you all understand why I chose to get involved in my Local Division.
When I first became a Local Chairman, it was because I was tired of the way I was being treated by the railroad, and thought I could make a difference. I was told that I was too young, that I didn’t have enough seniority, and when I got elected, I was tested by members who did not support me. None of that diminished my support of the Union movement, or my desire to do right by all members that I represented. I still remember the pride I felt the first time that I settled a member’s wrongly denied claim; taking hard earned money from the railroad and putting it into the member’s pocket, where it belonged. Over the years since then, I have been honored and privileged to serve at all levels of our Union’s protective department, and while there have been both successes and disappointments along the way, I have always worked to get our membership the respect, compensation and benefits commensurate with the contribution that we make to the railroad’s bottom line.
The majority of BLE/BLET Officers whom I have met along the way not only share my passion; they share my commitment to the membership. They are in most cases Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen who got involved because they thought they could make a difference. It is important to distinguish between those who are trying to make a difference – even when their best efforts fall short – from those who are truly subjecting railroad employees to abuse and mistreatment.
In my time on the railroad, I have seen countless engineers and trainmen wrongly discharged; I have seen millions of dollars in valid claims denied, forcing the Union to fight for what was already agree upon by the parties. I have seen operating employees ripped from their families and forced to chase and protect their seniority for years on end. In fact, I sat third from the bottom of my engineers’ seniority district for over 9 years in the 1980s, and was not permitted to work where my family lived for more than 6 months during those 9 years without being forced to some other location. But I was not alone; during that period, railroads implemented new Interdivisional runs that ripped hundreds of my Brothers and Sisters from their homes. Low density lines were leased or sold, creating travelling operating employees like me, who were just trying to do their job and feed their families. We were told time and time again, if you don’t like the job, quit.
Here is the part that seems to have been lost through the years; it wasn’t the Union that treated the employees with such contempt in the 1980s; it was the railroad. It wasn’t the Union that violated agreement after agreement – some before the ink was even dry – it was the railroad.
The same is true today. For the sake of, and in the name of profitability, many of these railroads are again changing their operations without any regard for the impact to their employees. In many cases, they ignore their obligations for protective benefits when operations are changed, and more concerning is their complete disregard for those with no protective benefits available due to the nature of the transaction. That isn’t the Union showing disregard to its members, it is the railroad putting profits ahead of people.
This same Carrier disregard is also at the very core of our current contract dispute with the nation’s Class 1 freight railroads. The fact that we do not have a contract settlement is not because your Union is not doing its job. Our contract should have been settled months if not years ago, and you can rest assured that the proposals advanced by our Coordinated Bargaining Group did have your best interests at heart. That is not true of your employers, the railroads. Quite to the contrary, the contract is not settled because your employers refuse to show YOU the respect that you deserve.
They cry poverty while they continue to be extremely profitable – and they are profitable in large part thanks to the skill of their employees. They outright reject the Unions’ fair contract proposals, not because they cannot afford them, but because it means more for you and less for them. They have not reduced CEO compensation due to any downturn in business. They believe the only ones who are supposed to “give at the office” are the employees.
That is what frustrates me most of all: your bargaining team has made fair and affordable contract proposals on your behalf, but those proposals have been rejected outright. Your employers have made it clear that in their opinion, you do not deserve the quality of health care that you have long worked for. They attempt to compare your benefits to those of bankrupt municipalities and minimum wage employers like Walmart in an effort to diminish the contribution you make to their bottom line. They refuse to offer meaningful wage increases that would keep up with the cost of living, and are now demanding work rule changes that would have you doing more work for less money in many cases.
To put it mildly, I am offended, and you should be offended, too. You deserve better from your employers, but don’t think for a minute that the railroad wants to be blamed for any of this. This is where our mutual frustration with the way we are being treated sometimes sends us in different directions.
From the comments we received from my recent Call to Arms, some of our members have succumbed to the sentiment that even though it is the railroad that is abusing you, it is the Union that is to blame. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is the abuser who avoids responsibility if you blame the Union for the railroad’s actions. Your employers are masters at planting seeds of dissension and distrust amongst their employees, all in an effort to make the Unions weaker. They have long pushed and benefited from the old adage, “the railroad screwed me, I blame the Union.”
On the other hand, I have always said give credit where credit is due: the railroads are the ones mistreating their employees and it is the railroads that are to blame, not the Union. Join me in an effort to hold them accountable whenever and wherever we are given the opportunity. Don’t fall for the railroads’ efforts to divide us at this critical time. You are the Union, and your Union needs your participation now more than ever. Attend your Union meetings when you can, get involved in your Local Division’s Mobilization Network. Run for office if you think you can make a difference. Even Union represented employees are “David” in what can only be called a David vs. Goliath battle; we stand no chance as individuals in that battle. The time is now to pull together to protect what we have, because the railroads have every intention of taking it from you. Be an active part of your Union’s fight to prevent that, our fight is your fight.