BLE fights for worker safety at Montana Rail Link

On December 9, the United Transportation Union's fog machine was cranked into high gear - injecting a couple of atoms of fact into a 55-gallon drum of fantasy - concerning a move by Montana Rail Link (MRL) to introduce remote-controlled locomotive operation in its Laurel, Montana yard.

UTU withheld from its members - and the public - several key facts as part of its deceitful campaign to purposely mislead railroad workers. As was the case with the Pacific Harbor Line, the collective bargaining agreement provision invoked by MRL as authority for the remote control project existed before MRL had a single employee in any of its operating crafts. Also, U.S. railroads have been interested in adopting this technology since the "Belt Pack" was introduced in Canada, where the UTU fought for and won for conductors the right to operate locomotives remotely.

The basis for UTU's inaccurate allegations is a single sentence in a December 2nd (not December 3, as UTU erroneously reported) letter from MRL President Daniel K. Watts to BLE members. In the letter, Watts states that MRL, "along with the FRA and your labor representatives, are now in the process of developing... procedures (for a safe and careful manner of operation)," which UTU portrays as "willing cooperation" by the BLE.

The real facts are set forth in a December 10 letter from MRL General Chairman M. W. Geiger Jr., to MRL Local Chairmen:

"As we have previously discussed, Montana Rail Link has not sought, nor been offered, BLE support or concurrence in reaching its decision to pursue remote controlled operations. We were recently made aware that MRL has applied to FRA for authorization to operate such a device.... As a result, we made it perfectly clear to the management of MRL that in the event FRA approves of their plans, we expect the Carrier to address our safety concerns relating to the implementation of this service. We also made it clear that we expect MRL to comply with the provisions of the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement concerning crew staffing requirements.

"As we have since been advised that FRA intends to allow this operation, both of you were asked by this Office to attend a recent meeting set up by FRA and MRL to address our safety concerns. I must reiterate that none of these actions were taken to sanction MRL's intentions... However, MRL's management has studied operations in Canada where these devices are commonplace. Canadian Carriers, with the concurrence of (the UTU), have operated these devices for several years and MRL's management is convinced that its operation will benefit from this technology.

"... I must state that even though the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not preclude the Carrier from utilizing this technology, we still have many concerns over the safety of such an operation. To that end we will continue to monitor MRL's plans as they move toward implementation and ask that you keep us of apprised of all happenings on the property in this regard.

"Although there are obviously those who will distort the events that have followed MRL's decision to pursue this technology, for their own political gain, rest assured that we will continue to do everything in our power to protect the livelihood and safety of all of the operating employees on Montana Rail Link."

In other words, the UTU claim of collaboration is based on the BLE's efforts to safeguard its members from potential hazards connected with remote control operations. Should the BLE not pursue its safety agenda? Obviously, the UTU would prefer that; then they could claim that we are idly standing by and not representing our members.

Not only has the UTU tried to incorporate remote control operation into Canadian agreements, it also has attempted such a move in the U.S. For example, Item 21 of UTU's current Section 6 notice, titled "Locomotive Remote Control/Scope Rule," seeks to "confirm that the operation of remote control devices (black boxes) will be performed exclusively by employees represented by UTU." According to BLE Research Director Dennis Simmerman, this is the fourth consecutive round of national bargaining in which UTU has made this demand.

"The UTU's attempt to completely rewrite history would be laughable, if the job security and safety of all BLE and UTU members were not at stake," says BLE President Ed Dubroski. "The UTU's role in facilitating the industry's agenda to reduce crew sizes over the past 15 years is already well-documented, as is its fight for operation of the Belt Pack in Canada.

"If locomotive engineers, conductors and trainmen want to know what the current UTU leadership has in store for them next, they need look no further than the Quebec, North Shore & Labrador Railway."

On the QNS&L, the UTU-represented operating craft employees were merged into a single, dovetailed roster, and the UTU and the carrier agreed to one-person train operations, which began in July of 1997. Last year, the Railway Association of Canada, which is Canada's equivalent of the Association of American Railroads, unveiled a proposed circular to govern one-person operations throughout Canada's railways that, "was developed in close consultation with QNS&L (and) Transport Canada."

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2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers