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BLET President’s Message: A look back at 2019, gearing up for 2020

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 2020 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News.)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, February 14 — As we begin 2020, the month of January gives us a chance to look back at the year gone by and to set our sights on the year ahead.

In January 2019, members of our current BLET Advisory Board pledged their oath of office and were sworn in. These fine Brothers are all a part of a strong and united Advisory Board, and I am confident that they will represent our membership to the best of their ability.

I am also proud to reflect on a major milestone achieved by our Education and Training Department in 2019. As usual, we hosted numerous training classes for Local Chairmen, Secretary-Treasurers and Legislative Representatives — both at our Training Center at National Headquarters in Cleveland and also on the road in Washington, D.C., and other locations. What made 2019 so special was the launch of our highly-anticipated online officer video training program, which made its debut on February 6, 2019. This was an important step in providing better educational opportunities for our members, especially those willing to become officers. And, while the online classes will not replace the actual classroom training courses that we offer, they will serve as an enhancement by giving our newly elected officers in the field the opportunity to get started on the right foot. In 2019, we were able to continue and expand upon our long-standing tradition of providing the best education and training opportunities anywhere in organized labor, with the goal of having the best trained and educated union membership in the United States.

In 2019, BLET also teamed up again with our Brothers and Sisters in the SMART Transportation Division to lobby for crew size bills at the federal and state levels. These bills would require that two certified crew members operate freight trains in the U.S. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Safe Freight Act (H.R. 1748) was introduced in late March, while in the U.S. Senate, a companion bill was introduced in June. The BLET has led the fight for railroad safety since 1863, and two-person crews make for safer, more efficient train operations. We will continue to publicly push for legislation requiring two-person crews in 2020, because we need the general public to know that two-person crews play a key role in safeguarding our nation’s communities.

At the state level, we enjoyed success with two-person crew bills passing in Nevada, Colorado and Illinois. I’m proud to offer my thanks to Nevada State Legislative Board Chairman (SLBC) Matt Parker, Colorado SLBC Paul Pearson, and Illinois SLBC Paul Piekarski. We came close in a number of other states, and the work will continue in 2020. We will continue to encourage other state governments to follow the examples set by these three states.

Unfortunately, the news was not all good in 2019. In May, the Federal Railroad Administration reduced the prospects for a safer railroad industry by withdrawing a 2016 notice of proposed rulemaking that would have established a minimum train crew size for most rail freight operations in the United States. This was not surprising, as we all know the Administrator of the FRA is the former CEO of Conrail. But it was shocking that FRA would denigrate the reliability of a vast factual record supporting two-person crews and would give short shrift to the lessons of the 2013 Lac-Megantic tragedy and the oil train derailment in Casselton, North Dakota (and subsequent explosion and fire) in the crew size debate. As part of its withdrawal of the proposed rule, FRA also declared its intention to negatively preempt all state laws governing crew size. This combined effort by FRA was obviously a key part of the Carriers’ effort to prevent any form of regulation or legislation that mandates a minimum crew size.

You can rest assured that BLET did not allow this act by FRA to go unchallenged. In fact, in July, BLET and SMART-TD jointly filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, challenging FRA’s authority to preempt State laws when there is no Federal law. The States of California, Washington, and Nevada filed their own petitions, joining in the challenge to the FRA action. Rest assured that BLET and SMART-TD will continue to work together to fight all of the actions by the current administration to undermine the safety of two-person crews.

In fact, on the heels of the FRA announcement, the Indiana Rail Road, the Association of American Railroads, and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (the Carriers’ own lobbying groups) filed suit in Illinois attempting to overturn that State’s crew size law, relying on FRA’s attempt at negative preemption. BLET and SMART-TD once again joined forces to defend the Illinois law, and as this message goes to print, the Illinois State AFL-CIO has joined us in this fight.

I share this information to make it clear to BLET’s membership that our proud Union stands with our Brothers and Sisters in SMART’s Transportation Division in the fight to preserve two-person crews. Be it on the regulatory front, the legislative front, in court or at the bargaining table, BLET is working with SMART-TD to protect the interests of all operating employees.

This does not mean that there will not be those who will try to divide our two Unions. In fact, in recent weeks, certain Carriers have misrepresented conversations with one of our two Unions in an effort to provoke a dispute between us. All things considered, acts like this by Rail Carriers should not surprise us; they have used divide-and-conquer tactics between us for decades. I must honestly say that now is not the time for the members and officers of either Union to take the so-called bait being thrown out by the Carriers. Their actions, whether it be through FRA, or through their attempts in court to undo Crew Consist moratoriums, should make it clear that they will stop at nothing in their quest to reduce crew size.

The bottom line is this: in order to preserve two-person crews, each Union must protect and preserve its member of those crews. With only a few exceptions, BLET cannot bargain nationally for Conductors. The same is true in reverse; with only a few exceptions, SMART-TD cannot bargain nationally for Engineers. For these reasons, and regardless of the fearmongering going on, BLET cannot “sell” Conductor positions to benefit Engineers in national negotiations, and the same in true in reverse for SMART-TD. Again, each Union must protect its half of our two-person crews for all operating employees to prevail.

The “crack in the armor” of this process that Carriers rely on is the fact that neither Union has agreement language in place that allows its members to refuse to go if a crew member represented by another Union is somehow eliminated. Engineers on BNSF found that out many years ago when UTU lost its single ground position on Helper service; they were required to work alone without a ground crew. UTU Switchmen found that out when Engineers were removed from yard service as part of RCO implementation; they were required to work without an engine crew. Bringing it full circle to today’s dispute, neither of these facts means that any operating crew member wants to work alone in freight service.

Our challenge now is to ensure that all operating employees understand exactly what the ground rules are as we move forward. Once they do, I am certain that they will agree with me that our two Unions are far better off working together than we are being divided.

To that end, the National Division took formal steps to initiate the next round of national contract negotiations late in 2019. The BLET served Section 6 notices in November 2019 and will begin negotiations in early 2020. On November 1, I joined nine other Rail Chiefs in announcing that our unions would be bargaining together as the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC). Jointly, our 10 unions represent more than 105,000 railroad workers covered by our various national agreements, and we comprise over 80 percent of the workforce who will be impacted by this round of negotiations.

Our Coalition is founded on two key values that we all share. One is that we understand the importance of each Union’s autonomy to pursue membership-specific goals within a framework of broad solidarity to defend and improve the wages, benefits and working conditions of our members. The other is that we will spare no effort to defeat the attack by the railroads on the very foundation of our members’ economic security.

Looking ahead, our Brotherhood will have a full plate in 2020 with much of our collective effort focused on national contract negotiations. Our economic issues and safety issues are common issues to all BLET members — regardless of political affiliation — and our fight to protect those interests form the foundation of our Brotherhood. As Union members, we have much more in common than we often realize, and our goal moving forward is to further unite our Brotherhood to make for an even stronger Union. Please join me as we move ahead together in the New Year.

Friday, February 14, 2020

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