BLET marks 144th anniversary

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen marked its 144th anniversary this month. The union was founded as the Brotherhood of the Footboard on May 8, 1863, in Marshall, Mich.

In 1864, the union changed its name to Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the name it retained until merging with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on Jan. 1, 2004, when it became BLET.

The organization was formed when locomotive engineers on the Michigan Central became discouraged with pay cuts and the dismissal of their firemen. Locomotive engineers were then being paid at the rate of $60 a month on the condition that they ran at least 2,500 miles each month, regardless of the time consumed. Because of complaints about this low rate of pay and inequitable way of doing it, the Michigan Central agreed in 1862 to advance the pay of first class engineers to $85 a month. These and other concessions by the road, however, proved to be of short duration. Runs were changed in such a way that the engineers experienced reductions in pay rather than increases.

A. S. Sweet, who occupied the post of superintendent of machinery with the Michigan Central at that time, had been given that job on the promise that he would reduce costs. He was responsible for cutting the men''s pay. The men carried a pointed protest to Sweet, who, as a result, fired a number of them.

J. C. Thompson, one of the original organizers of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, declared that Sweet became so incensed at having been challenged in this way that he laid off a number of firemen who had been longest in service and gave their places to others who knew nothing of the work required of them. This brought an immediate clash, for the engineers refused to go out on their runs where regular firemen had been dismissed. This attitude was an initial open display on the part of locomotive engineers to protect firemen.

Men all over the system were discouraged. Angered by the situation, a group of 13 Michigan Central engineers, failing to find privacy for a meeting on company property, gathered at the home of William D. Robinson of Marshall, Mich., to discuss conditions and map out a plan of action.

They agreed that if any one of them were discharged by Sweet, the rest would quit on the spot. A circular was prepared and they all signed it. Then they carried further their plan, which they called a Protective Association. If other engineers affiliated with the group, they, too, would be required to promise to quit the service if any member were fired.

Copies of this were circulated over the Michigan Central and additional engineers, subscribing to the oath, joined the movement with enthusiasm. A committee was formed and went to Sweet''s office. Sweet refused to see them at first, refusing even to speak to them. But through patiently explaining their mission, the group finally got his permission for an interview. He is said to have called out to the waiting members of the committee as he entered his office: "Well, boys, what do you propose to do, shut up the road?"

Sam Hill, one of the committee replied, "We are here as gentlemen, representing gentlemen, and desire to be treated as such." Hill went on to say that the committee was acting as a unit and that they were speaking for all the engineers from Detroit to Chicago that they had grievances that they wished to adjust. The committee discussed all of the points at issue very thoroughly and it ended by Sweet granting the whole of their requests.

When the success of this conference became known, it gave a tremendous impetus to the Protective Association and it was decided to extend the movement to all railroads. A call for a general meeting was then issued, to be held in Detroit on May 5, 1863.

The Detroit convention marked a new epoch in the organization of American railroad employees. It brought together engineers from the Michigan Central, Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana, Detroit & Milwaukee, Grand Trunk, and Michigan Southern. Together, the 12 delegates present drafted a constitution, which combined democratic control with efficient central administration, thus solving the fundamental problem that had wrecked many previous labor organizations. After three days of deliberations and plans for the future, the delegates on May 8 joined hands and obligated themselves to abide by the constitution, forming the pioneer division of the Brotherhood of the Footboard with W. D. Robinson as chief engineer. This division, No. 1 in Detroit, still maintains its proud position as first on the roster of over 500 divisions of the BLET.

Today, with more than 55,000 active and retired members, the BLET is one of the largest and most influential railroad unions in the United States.




© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen