Labor Secretary Marty Walsh highlights Day 2 of BLET’s Fifth National Convention

LAS VEGAS, October 11 — U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, during an address at the Fifth National Convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) on Tuesday, praised railroad workers for continuing to work in the most difficult of circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The Secretary said that the work of railroaders enabled other essential workers to their jobs to keep the nation moving. “The entire economy depends on the work you do,” Secretary Walsh said. “Clean water, food, power to heat and cool our homes. This nation owes you a debt of gratitude.”

The Secretary of Labor played a critical role in the recent Class I rail contract talks. Following the release of recommendations by the Presidential Emergency Board and before the end of the mandated cooling off period last month, Secretary Walsh, at the request of President Biden, served as a mediator to help BLET and SMART-TD reach a tentative national agreement with the rail industry.

Marty Walsh
U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh

Walsh told the assembled delegates that 20 straight hours of negotiations were necessary to come to the tentative agreement and avoid a nationwide strike. While the pay increases and health care aspects of the contract have been well-documented in the news media, the Secretary of Labor said that BLET members and other railroaders should not underestimate the significance of other gains in the tentative deal. Elements establishing guaranteed time off for medical leave without punishment is an important development. “It sets a precedent that you can build upon,” Walsh said. “It opens a door so the union Brothers and Sisters who come after you can get a better deal.”

Walsh concluded, “When we stand together, we win. When working people fight together, we win.”

Also addressing the BLET convention delegates Tuesday were John Bragg of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) and Greg Regan of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD). Delegates also received a video greeting from Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Jeremy Ferguson, President of the SMART Transportation Division, delivered a video message to the convention detailing how the SMART-TD union and BLET worked closely throughout the long Class I contract battle.

Bragg, who serves as the Labor Member of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), spoke about the history of the Railroad Retirement system, beginning with the establishment of the RRB after the turbulent days of the Great Depression. He described how railroad management adamantly opposed creation of a pension system for its employees, fighting it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rail Labor was ultimately victorious in establishing the retirement system, which continues to benefit railroad workers to this day.

John Bragg
John Bragg, Labor Member of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

Brother Bragg is a railroader from CSX who worked his way up through the ranks with the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. With unanimous support of all 13 Railroad Labor unions, Brother Bragg was confirmed as Labor Member of the RRB in 2019.

“The BLET was at the forefront of Rail Labor’s efforts to not only establish the Railroad Retirement system, but to protect it and improve it for generations to come,” he said. “These benefits were not given to us. Our forefathers fought for them. And we as organized labor continue to fight for them today.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Railroad Retirement fund faced a great deal of economic uncertainty as well as attacks from the Reagan administration. But it was Rail Labor, Bragg said, that fought to save Railroad Retirement. Thanks to those efforts, the fund is strong and stable today. However, Brother Bragg cautioned that constant vigilance is required to maintain those benefits. “We can’t let our guard down and become complacent,” he said.

Current threats to the Railroad Retirement system include so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading, one-person train crews, and the contracting out of union jobs. In terms of PSR, Brother Bragg said, “Without your labor, without your contributions, there wouldn’t be any profits for management to enjoy.”

Greg Regan, President of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) thanked BLET and BMWED leaders and members for reaffiliating with the TTD earlier in 2022. Regan said the TTD’s combined voice of 37 transportation unions gives workers a powerful voice on Capitol Hill.

In his remarks to delegates, the TTD president highlighted legislative victories over the past two years that brought a significant funding increase to Amtrak, which not only kept the passenger railroad from insolvency but contained specific language that put furloughed workers back on the job. Passage of new federal infrastructure funding also serves as a massive investment and commitment to passenger rail and provides new opportunities for Amtrak.

Greg Regan
Greg Regan, President of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department

Regan’s report wasn’t all good news. He described PSR an “underlying rot” in the freight rail industry as railroad corporations make billions of dollars in profit while laying off thousands of workers. In addition to hurting rail workers, Regan said that PSR has damaged the country, hurt shippers and consumers, and brought the supply chain to a grinding halt. He said TTD’s goal is to ensure adequate staffing so that the nation’s Class I railroads can meet their common carrier obligations, and to also eliminate harsh rail carrier attendance policies.

Delegates during Day 2 of the BLET’s Fifth National Convention devoted much of their time to discussing and voting on changes to bylaws. Brother Randy Fannon of BLET Division 37 (Norton, Va.) serves as Chairman of the Bylaws Committee.

Approximately 435 delegates are meeting at the Bally’s Convention Center in Las Vegas this week, representing more than 57,000 locomotive engineers and trainmen members on national freight and passenger rail systems across the United States. More information, including news and photo updates, is available on the BLET’s convention website and the National Division’s Facebook page.