Members at Huron & Eastern shortline ratify first BLET contract

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen have ratified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement with the Huron & Eastern Railroad, a RailAmerica short line headquartered in Vassar, Mich.

The four-year agreement was ratified on Dec. 17, 2007, and went into effect on January 1. The agreement covers approximately 25 members and provides general wage increases of 2% per year (8% over the life of the contract) in addition to bonuses earned through the company's profit sharing program. The agreement provided a 3% wage increase from December 17 to December 31, along with the annual 2% wage increase that went into effect on January 1.

Prior to selecting the BLET as their designated collective bargaining representative on May 11, 2006, workers at the Huron & Eastern were non-union "at will" employees.

Dan Lorenz, Local Chairman of Division 327, said the new contract provides security for members.

"The big reason we organized and wanted to get in a union was to create a policy, structure and guidelines to hold management accountable," Lorenz said. "The new contract gives us those protections."

The contract contains a "work safe" provision that allows members to earn quarterly bonuses for avoiding workplace injuries. Payments under the work safe program are awarded on an individual basis and could be as high as $780 per quarter.

In terms of profit sharing, members have the right to opt out of the program if it does not meet their expectations. In lieu of profit sharing, members would earn a general wage increase of 3% per year instead of 2%.

Members also will receive back pay in the form of profit sharing payments that were withheld during negotiations. Lorenz said the negotiating process lasted between 18 and 24 months, and during that time management withheld profit sharing to use as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Lorenz said members will receive profit sharing payments from six previous quarters, which will total several thousand dollars for some members.

Midway through the negotiating process, Rail America was sold. The transaction threw a monkey wrench into the negotiating process and delayed the final outcome.

"This property took longer than normal for us to get the first contract due to RailAmerica being bought by Fortress Inc.," said John Mullen, the BLET's Director of Shortlines. "We actually went several months not knowing who we were going to be dealing with."

The new contract also maintains a 401k program and includes a company match.

On January 1, BLET members were switched from an hourly rate of pay to a basic day. The daily rate of pay is for 10 hours of work, and overtime is paid at a rate of time and a half for work over and above 10 hours per day.

In terms of health and welfare, the new contract maintains medical benefits, but they are now under Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Members will also receive dental benefits and vision benefits.

Lorenz said the creation of a guaranteed extra board was a huge benefit for members and a main reason the contract was ratified.

"Now we have an assigned day off per week," he said. "That is huge."

The agreement also establishes work rules, a scope rule and a seniority system.

Joining Brother Lorenz on the BLET negotiating team were; Justin Brandt, Alternate Local Chairman; and John Mullen, BLET Director of Shortlines. When health reasons prevented Mullen from attending a negotiating session, BLET National Vice President Merle Geiger stepped up to the plate.

"I want to give a big thanks to John Mullen and Merle Geiger," Lorenz said. "We were at a stalemate, but Merle and John came in with a lot of optimism and enthusiasm. Before it was all said and done, we made a lot of progress and got a contract in principle."

" I want to thank Justin Brandt, who assisted Dan and I during the contract process, and the membership for having the patience and sticking together through this lengthy process," Mullen said. "I also thank Vice President Geiger who helped us close the deal."

In terms of BLET organizational structure, the Huron & Eastern membership now belong to Division 327 and they are a part of the new Regional and Shortline General Committee of Adjustment, which was formed in early 2007.

RailAmerica is one of the largest short line owners in the United States and Canada. It operates 41 railroads that service approximately 7,800 miles of track.

In 1986, RailAmerica purchased the Huron & Eastern, which represented its first rail acquisition. The short line, headquartered in Vassar, Mich., operates 174 miles of rail line. In January 2004, RailAmerica purchased the Central Michigan Railway and combined it with the Huron & Eastern, creating a combined railroad with approximately 250 miles of track.

It interchanges with Saginaw Bay Southern (formerly CSX lines) in Saginaw, Mich., the Lake State Railway in Bay City, Mich., the Canadian National Railway in Durand, Mich., and the Great Lakes Central Railway in Durand, Mich. Its lines service massive grain elevators about every 20 miles and its major customers include Consumer Energy in Essexville and four Pioneer Sugar plants.

BLET members operate locomotives hauling goods such as grain, coal, lumber, sugar beets, molasses, and various other agricultural items.

The railroad also serves Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., which boasts one of the largest chemical complexes in the United States outside of Louisiana and Texas.


© 2008 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen