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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 1:08 pm

Railroad Workers Convene to Shake Up Unions

BY Mike Elk

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS- Last year, over 92,000 railroad workers represented by 11 different unions agreed to a series of concessionary contracts, while the four largest railroad companies collected $8.5 billion in profits.

The problem: Railroad unions are typically forced into concessions because the federal government holds the power to step in and stop railway strikes. Therefore, individual unions often race to make their own deals, hoping that settling quickly will allow their union to negotiate a slightly better deal with the railroads.

It’s a disheartening situation for union members, which is why, in 2008, several railroad unionists joined to form Railroad Workers United (RWU), a cross-craft association of workers from over 17 different unions. Together, RWU members planned to challenge the often top-down structure of railroad unions, which they felt hindered their ability to fight against rail companies. RWU is a small, volunteer-run organization with a budget of only a few thousand dollars and about 200 members who pay just $50 in annual dues. But despite limited means, RWU members hope that by serving as the voices of dissent in their unions, they can bring about positive changes that will ultimately lead to improved working conditions.

Earlier this month, 40 members and allies of RWU gathered in Chicago for a one-day convention to discuss ways to expand their organization.

Success, of course, requires planning and some bureaucracy. Topics of discussion at the convention included strategies to reach new members and to encourage them to pay dues, methods of distributing the RWU newsletter, “The Highball,” and for placing stickers with RWU contact information on locomotives across the country (which RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow considers a highly successful tactic in recruiting new members).

A long part of the meeting expanded on the boring mechanics of running an organization, including a debate about which software to use for the website and a detailed discussion of the procedure for selecting alternate delegates for the steering committee. The discussion may seem mundane to outsiders, but it's exciting to workers making change from the inside.

“All this stuff about amending the constitution and bylaws may seem boring, but in all my years in the BLET [Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a 45,000 member Teamsters affiliate], I have never been involved in any of this,” says John Paul Wright, a CSX locomotive engineer from Louisville, Ky. “This is the stuff of forming a member-run organization—writing bylaws—and I am excited to be a part of it.”

Many of the members here are upset with unions they see as top-heavy and out of touch with the needs of members. They say the top-down structures have led the unions to agree to unnecessary, and ultimately harmful, concessions. 

“I have had to suffer under a two-tier wage system… [That system] adds lasting animosity among younger workers towards the union for agreeing to it,” says Hugh Sawyer of Atlanta, Ga. “I will hate the UTU [United Transportation Union] forever because of it.”

On the convention floor, members discussed how they could possibly stop the unions from agreeing to those kinds of contracts. They deliberated how to improve working conditions and push back against bosses by forming strong shop floor and safety committees.

Of particular concern is safety, which some workers say the unions have done a poor job of addressing. The railroad companies, workers say, have introduced single-employee crews, which put one worker in charge of handling an entire train. Workers claim single-employee crews are often overworked and therefore more prone to accidents.

To highlight the obstacles to safety, RWU invited Nancy Lessin of the United Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Safety, Health and Environmental Education to talk about behavioral safety models that often blame workers for safety hazards and penalize them for reporting accidents.

“The Teamsters deducts a tax of one dollar from each paycheck for education, but I don’t get a lot of education. I get a lot of stuff in my mailbox at election time instead,” Wright says. “This here is what unions are supposed to do.”

For their part, the RWU’s safety education efforts have started to affect the railroad industry. A few years ago, RWU called on its members to wear black shirts on the Friday before Father’s Day to commemorate Railroad Workers Memorial Day and workers killed on the job. Unions throughout the railroad industry followed and adopted similar actions.

Now, RWU members are hoping to turn their unions into more democratic organizations to avoid the recent round of concessionary bargaining that pitted unions against each other.

“I always like to say that Railroad Workers United is a little gear that tries to move a bigger gear—the unions we belong to," says Jon Flanders, a CSX mechanic and member of IAM, based out of Troy, N.Y. "We were formed to get our unions to do the right thing.” 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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