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Vol. 78/No. 34      September 29, 2014

(front page)
Rail workers defend safety, reject
bosses’ 1-person ‘crew’ proposal
Creston News Advertiser
Rail workers, supporters outside Aug. 25, Creston, Iowa, union meeting oppose one-man crew.

CRESTON, Iowa — In a victory for rail workers and those who live along train routes, members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) who work for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway across the western two-thirds of the U.S. voted by a clear majority Sept. 9 to reject the bosses’ proposal to run freight trains with a “crew” of one.

The BNSF, owned by Omaha-based billionaire Warren Buffett, sought to eliminate on-board conductors on 60 percent of its freight trains operating across the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and parts of the South early next year. Instead of having a conductor working with an engineer, the proposal called for a “master conductor” to work multiple trains from a distant control center.

Last July the general committee of the SMART union’s Transportation Division accepted the one-person crew proposal. But the rest of the union — which organizes a variety of workers from metal roofers and bus drivers to welders — is opposed, as is the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents most engineers.

The plan was championed by Railway Age, the bosses’ industry press, which called it “a gutsy, proactive and farsighted collaboration between BNSF and a general committee of its largest labor union.”

“No evidence has surfaced that a second person in the locomotive cab contributes to a more-safe operation while evidence exists that the second person in the cab can cause a safety hazard,” the magazine said July 17.

This claim not only defies common sense, but clashes with the record of recent train derailments where only one worker was on the engine, including in Lac-Mégantic in Canada in July 2013, where 47 people were killed, and in the Bronx, New York, where four died when a Metro North commuter trail derailed last December.

The proposed contract was packed with enticements to sell the profit-motivated attack on safety, including a $5,000 signing bonus. The bosses promised that those laid off would continue to receive some pay.

Campaign against proposal

Leading up to the vote, officials of SMART’s Transportation Division organized more than 70 special local meetings in dozens of cities to show a Powerpoint presentation pushing the deal. “Many workers attended these meetings, turning them into ‘vote no’ rallies. That’s what happened at the meeting I attended,” Chris Rayson, a 20-year BNSF worker currently serving as a yard switchman at the railroad’s South Seattle Intermodal yard, told the Militant.

“We plastered up stickers against cutting the crew size at Balmer, Seattle’s biggest rail yard. Management mobilized to get them down, threatening workers with discipline,” Rayson said. “But workers wore the stickers, and they turned up on engines and other places management doesn’t go.”

About 70 percent of union members voted, reported the Creston, Iowa, News Advertiser. To defeat the agreement, more than 50 percent of each craft — conductors, trainmen and switchmen — had to vote no. The contract proposal applied to 3,000 workers.

“I don’t actually know anyone here in Creston or anywhere else who says they voted for the one-man crew,” Nancy Reed, a BNSF conductor, told the Militant Sept. 14. “I’m glad that it didn’t pass. It wasn’t in the interests of anyone.”

More than 40 union members, joined by family and friends, protested with signs reading, “Vote No! to 1 Man Crew” and “Protect our community” in an Aug. 25 rally outside the union meeting to discuss the deal in Creston.

Similar protests were organized in Galesburg, Illinois; Alliance, Nebraska; Seattle and Spokane, Washington; and other cities.

BNSF is planning to implement Congress-mandated Positive Train Control system technology, which adds some automatic speed controls. Company officials argue that this system and other planned upgrades mean conductors are no longer necessary.

“Rail workers are not against technology that can make train handling safer,” a BNSF engineer in Kansas City with 20 years experience, who asked that his name not be used, told the Militant. “But each new ‘advance’ has a side that is used to cut jobs at the expense of safety, instead of as an additional aid to safety.”

Over the last 25 to 30 years, rail bosses’ profit drive has reduced crew sizes. Forty years ago a train crew was four to five workers. In recent decades, the caboose was eliminated and crew size shrunk to two.

“With the amount of hours we are on the job, you can’t get around the need for human beings — eyes and minds on the job,” the engineer told the Militant.
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Construction workers in Turkey resist bosses’ deadly profit drive
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