Jan. 1, 2004, was a historic date for railroad unionism but was little noticed outside the industry. The Teamsters and the oldest of the rail craft unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, merged. The controversy amongst rail workers about the issues of a truckers’ union essentially taking over a rail union has been mixed with positive feelings about Teamsters President Hoffa’s invitation to all rail labor to form one big umbrella, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
The historic weakness of craft unionism, pointed out first by rail unionism’s greatest leader, Eugene V. Debs, has been glaring and obvious to many in the last 20 years. The Teamsters have actually formally invited all rail labor to join via the method of merger and this suddenly realistic potential of unity and industrial unionism has excited many. Yet many feel leery of merging with a union that has politically lobbied against pro-rail issues and has had historic problems with internal democracy.
Railway car mechanics have particularly strong grievances against the weak bargaining strategy of their union and might be fertile ground for a pro merger movement.
Since January, the new Rail conference of the Teamsters has brought in 1,400 new train crew members on the Canadian Pacific and has put out formal merger proposals across the North American rail unions. There has been one reliable source this writer spoke with who maintains that two rail unions have shown serious interest. With many reservations and some very positive glimmers of hope, a number of rail workers are awaiting further developments.
One thing is certain, and that is that craft unionism in the rail industry long ago exhausted its positive potential. Five or 10 small unions bargaining separately cannot match the power of one big union standing up to the rail industry as a united front from the engine house to the clerks office to the locomotives’ cabs.
– Phil Amadon Phil Amadon is a 27-year railway car mechanic in Ohio. Reprinted by permission from the website of Steelwheel (steelwheel.org), the railway car mechanics’ rank and file organization.