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President Pierce: National bargaining update

By Dennis R. Pierce

BLET National President




CLEVELAND, November 5 — When national Section 6 Notices were served last November, we were more than a year into the worst economic crisis America has seen since the Great Depression, and the national unemployment rate continues to hover around 10 percent. BLET members have not been spared from the hardships of the current recession. Between May 2008 and June 2009, T&E employment on the “Big Four” Class I carriers dropped over 19-1/2 percent.

As recently as last January, employment levels remained over 19-1/2 percent below May 2008, and are still nearly 12-1/2 percent below that figure today. That translates into nearly 8,000 fewer T&E jobs on those four carriers, alone.

The carriers are doing much better than our members are; in fact, they’re doing much better than the economy as a whole. Net profits for the Big Four totaled nearly $5-1/4 billion in 2009, a figure that was surpassed in less than nine months this year. Profits for the two-year period are all but certain to top the $13 billion mark.

The industry continues to make historic profits in the face of these lean economic times. In fact, investing in railroads is such a good bet that even the legendary Warren Buffet has gone “all in” on BNSF.

Those profits come in large measure from the productivity of BLET members and our Brother and Sister railroad workers. They also are calculated after our wage and benefit costs have been paid.

You’d never know about the industry’s success or our contribution at the bargaining table, though. That’s because the carriers are trying to use the nation’s economic woes to fill their already bulging pockets at our expense.

The main focus of the carriers’ attack is our package of health and welfare benefits. The industry’s negotiators are demanding large scale rollbacks in benefits and huge hikes in what we pay — both on the front end, through monthly premium contributions, and on the back end with co-pays.

The carriers don’t argue that they can’t afford to improve or maintain the current plan; with the size of their profits no one could make that claim with a straight face. Instead, they’re trying to make the case that what we receive is way out of line with the rest of the country.

There are two problems with the carriers’ argument. First, it deliberately overlooks the fact our benefits were bought and paid for at the bargaining table in past bargaining rounds; we’re already paying for our benefits. And, second, the comparisons made by the carriers are to non-union employers who have slashed their workers’ benefits in response to the economic downturn.

Think about that for a minute. What the carriers seek to do is piggyback on businesses that have been devastated by the recession, and impose a level of concessions on us similar to that foisted upon workers who have no union to defend them … and they make that argument while they are raking in record profits!

For most of my railroad career I’ve been witness to the carriers crying poverty. Time and time again the carriers sang the same, worn out chorus… “Labor needs to give us a break so we can get back on our feet!” And the carriers received plenty of breaks that we never agreed to. The late 80’s and early 90’s saw series of concessionary contracts that included givebacks in wages, benefits and work rules. We also lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, with employment on Class I railroads dropping nearly 75 percent, between 1970 and last January. On top of that, the percentage of railroad jobs on Class I carriers plunged from more than 88 percent in 1970 to just over 70 percent in 2006.

The carriers got what they wanted for more than 30 years, and now are reaping windfall profits, but they reap those profits because of you. Railroad worker productivity — as measured by freight train miles per employee and freight car miles per employee — soared by over 250 percent during that same period. Maybe the carriers think we’ve forgotten this history, or maybe they don’t believe we’re ready for a fight in these tough times, but they’re wrong either way.

Let me say this loud enough for the railroads to hear, BLET WILL NOT ACCEPT A CONCESSIONARY AGREEMENT IN THIS BARGAINING ROUND! The membership of our great union has given enough, it’s past time for us to receive wages and benefits commensurate with the contribution we make to the Carrier’s profits.

This isn’t just talk. The BLET, as part of the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition, has done the research and we are putting together an ironclad case to defend our wages, rules, and all of our benefits. We’re gearing up for a fight this industry hasn’t seen in decades. Although the Railway Labor Act makes for a long and drawn out process, we will exercise our legal economic power, if that becomes necessary. We will not be worn down in this struggle.

There’s a role in this fight for you, too. Be active in your Local Division; get involved in your property’s Mobilization Network. When the struggle really gets under way expect us to reach out to you, to make your voice heard. When the word comes that it’s time to act, be ready so that the carriers understand that they’re not dealing with just a group of union leaders. Make sure that they know that they are dealing with each and every Teamster in the BLET.

Friday, November 5, 2010
bentley@ble-t.org

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