By Dennis R. Pierce, BLET National President
(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the August/September 2022 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News. Additionally, a joint video regarding the tentative national freight agreement by BLET President Pierce and SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson is available here: https://youtu.be/87AyRl-G2bA.)
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, October 8 — My message in the last BLET Newsletter was a joint message with SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson giving a detailed report on the presentations that the United Rail Unions made before Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) 250. Much has happened since that joint message. On August 17, 2022, PEB 250 issued its recommendations; that detailed report is available on the BLET website, and it started a second 30-day cooling off period.
Once BLET received the PEB’s recommendations, we conducted a survey of our affected members to ensure that the interests and opinions of the members drove our next steps. Those survey results were clear; the membership was not going to vote in favor of a tentative agreement based solely on the PEB’s recommendations.
That was the exact position BLET’s National Wage Committee took with the rail carriers when we met to negotiate following the PEB recommendations. Our Committee made it clear to the carriers that there had to be improvements over and above what was in the PEB recommendations, or no tentative agreement would be sent to the membership for their consideration.
Our negotiations continued until the final day of the cooling-off period, with the eyes of our membership and the nation watching the process. As you all now know , a tentative agreement that improves the PEB recommendations was reached on September 15, 2022, and BLET is preparing for a membership rank and file vote on that tentative agreement. You can rest assured that had there been no improvements on the PEB recommendations, no tentative agreement would have been reached. The members will now decide if those improvements warrant acceptance of the tentative agreement.
My purpose here is not to try to talk anyone into voting one way or the other; Rather, as the process moves forward, the voting members must sort through all that they are hearing about the tentative agreement and their options to cast a vote that is in their best interest. That has become easier said than done. In my conversations with members at the General Committee, Local Division and State Legislative Board levels since the tentative agreement was reached, it has become increasingly clear that there is more misinformation and misrepresentations circulating in social media than there is clear and factual information about the tentative agreement, how it was reached, and what our options are.
Before I address the most outrageous misrepresentations, I must point back to my joint message with President Ferguson where we said, “As has been said time and again, do not listen to the Carrier moles and trolls that attempt to blame this situation on the employees or their Unions. They are only attempting to divide us as we close in on the final months of this round of bargaining. Among our unions, our solidarity is our strength. Please do not allow those attempting to divide us to succeed.”
This has never been truer than now. There are groups, many from outside our Union, working overtime pushing outright lies about the tentative agreement, how it was reached, and what the membership should do next.
One of the biggest lies, started by a Union-hating contributor to an industry rag, was that your votes would not matter because your Union planned to impose the tentative agreement by fiat or through some backroom deal to arbitrate the dispute. As background, there was a time when the BLE Constitution and Bylaws allowed your President to accept binding arbitration of a contract dispute. The last time that happened resulted in the infamous Arbitration Award No. 458 in the mid 1980s. The results of that arbitration have haunted our Union for over 30 years. Those results were so poorly received that BLE’s Constitution and Bylaws were promptly modified at its next convention in 1986; the rank and file membership must vote in favor of accepting binding arbitration before that can ever happen. That change was carried over into the BLET’s Bylaws when we merged with the IBT in 2004. In the years since 1986, no BLE or BLET President has polled our members on accepting arbitration, and I have committed to all of you since I became President that I will not do so either. Anyone suggesting that our Union would accept binding arbitration against our membership’s wishes is lying to you. I have yet to find a case where the membership benefited from being lied to. Don’t fall for it; it’s just not true.
Equally untrue is the idea that your Union somehow sold any member out by giving you the opportunity to vote yea or nay on the tentative agreement. There was also a time in our Union’s history when members did not have the right to ratify contracts. They had no individual vote on their contract, and their Local Chairman cast a vote in favor or against their contract. That too was changed, this time at the BLE Convention in 1996, the first BLE convention I attended as a delegate. The delegates to that convention, duly elected by the membership, changed the BLE Constitution and Bylaws to require membership rank and file ratification of contracts for the first time. That democratic right and process are now underway; do not diminish your right to decide the contract that you work under. No one’s rights to self-help have been taken away. Should the agreement fail ratification, we will find ourselves again facing the end of the cooling-off period.
I hear loud and clear that many members are upset that they “have to vote” on a contract they may not favor. But it is also true that many members would be just as upset had they found out that improvements to the PEB recommendations were on the table, but they had not been given a chance to vote on them before potentially having the straight recommendations imposed on them by Congress.
In the coming days, the National Wage Committee will meet with the carriers to finalize the questions and answers related to the contract language. Ballots will be mailed shortly after that is completed. We are also setting up virtual and in-person town hall meetings to discuss the tentative agreement directly with the membership.
In the end, it is the membership that will decide what happens next. And for one last urban legend, a non-returned ballot is not counted in any way, shape or form. Those members who take the time to vote will determine the outcome of the ratification process. Please participate in the ratification process regardless of how you view the tentative agreement. To ensure you receive your ballot, please ensure that the National Division has your correct current address on file. You can do that by checking with your Local Division Secretary-Treasurer, or by registering for the members on the BLET Website.