General Executive Board Demands Public Ownership of Railroads, Discusses Young Worker Upsurge

January 31, 2023

Meeting on January 28 and 29, UE’s General Executive Board unanimously endorsed a statement demanding that Congress “immediately begin a process of bringing our nation’s railroads under public ownership.” The statement notes that “the private owners of our nation’s Class 1 railroads have shown themselves utterly incapable of facing the challenge of the climate crisis, dealing fairly with their own workers, or even meeting the most basic needs of their customers.”

Local 1177 President Larry Hopkins, a rail crew driver for Hallcon in Chicago, pointed out that the refusal of the railroads to upgrade their locomotives impacts the health of workers like him who work in the rail yards. “They need to replace a lot of the old yard locomotives that are in there,” he said, because the pollutants they emit are “very toxic to the air. As rail crew drivers, we’re being exposed to the toxins.”

Local 1477 President Jessica Van Eman, also a Hallcon rail crew driver, decried the effects of longer trains on small communities like hers, where the longer and longer trains demanded by the railroads’ “endless thirst for profit” can block access to crucial emergency services. “Just in our little town of Belen, New Mexico, we’ve had three people die because they could not get to the other side of the tracks,” she said. “These rail yards are not made for 20,000-foot trains.”

In 2021, UE launched the Green Locomotive Project, which aims to encourage the railroads to upgrade their locomotive stock to cleaner and more efficient “Tier 4” locomotives, and to adopt zero-emissions technology for use in rail yards. This would significantly reduce both the pollution around rail yards and their carbon footprint, while creating good, union jobs — a concrete example of what a “Green New Deal” could accomplish.

Local 506 President Scott Slawson pointed out that “the emissions from old, polluting diesel locomotives are harmful to the people who work in rail yards and they’re harmful to the communities around rail yards.” He pledged that “We are committed to getting all locomotives out there to Tier 4 or better.” Local 506 members manufacture locomotives for Wabtec in Erie, PA.

“An influx of a lot of young people who want to build UE”

In his Organizing Report, Director of Organization Mark Meinster noted that “there’s an upsurge in this country among young workers,” and that the union is seeing “an influx of a lot of young people who want to build UE.”

This was confirmed by other GEB members. Local 1186 President Mike Tomaloff, whose local represents workers at Willy Street Co-op in Madison, WI, reported that “we get high school kids that are fired up about the union”; Local 222 Vice President Margaret Dabrowski noted that young workers are tired of the “bunch of lies fed to them,” and “now they want to fight back.” General President Carl Rosen said that young workers “want autonomy, militancy, politics that challenge the status quo” — which is exactly what they find in UE.

This upsurge of young workers has been especially evident in UE’s organizational work among graduate workers in the recent period. Meinster reported that UE won an NLRB election on January 10 and 11 for 3,000 graduate workers at Northwestern University, just north of Chicago, with over 93 percent of the vote. The union also has elections scheduled for the week of January 30 for two additional graduate worker bargaining units of over 3,000 workers, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Chicago.

Meinster also reviewed the first contracts that were won in December at two universities in New Mexico and at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, ongoing negotiations for first contracts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ, and organizational work among public-sector workers in Virginia and West Virginia.

Turning to contract bargaining, he said that UE is in the middle of “the most intense contract cycle of all of our contract cycles.” In September, UE’s six Hallcon locals settled a new national agreement covering approximately 2,000 workers. Most of UE’s Service Contract Act locals, which together have several thousand members, have recently settled contracts, negotiated bridge agreements with a new contractor, or will be going into negotiations in the coming months. Seven hundred and fifty UE members at Henry Mayo hospital in California are in “a real fight,” with their contract expiring on January 31. And on June 9, Locals 506 and 618 will see their first contract with Wabtec expire, and are expecting a big fight.

2023 Convention

Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker reviewed plans for the 78th UE Convention, which will be held at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Pittsburgh from September 17-21, 2023. GEB members offered thoughts on the convention theme, possible guest speakers and ideas for workshops.

Dinkelaker also gave a report about the Leadership and Staff Development Program, noting that several members of the first cohort (who completed the program in October) have been hired onto full-time UE staff, and that several others had been elected to the GEB in March. The second cohort began meeting in mid-January.

The board also reviewed the union’s finances and heard a report from a task force on subregional meetings.


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