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Rail union leader retires to clear way for upstart who won

Dennis Pierce
Posted at 8:04 PM, Dec 16, 2022

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The longtime head of the second-largest rail union announced Friday that he will clear the way for the upstart candidate who beat him by retiring instead of fighting to keep his office in a second election.

Eddie Hall received 509 more votes than Dennis Pierce in the election which reflects how frustrated engineers are with the contract they received this fall after three years of bargaining that doesn't resolve all their quality-of-life concerns about demanding schedules, the lack of paid sick leave and the way they are treated by the freight railroads.

Pierce, who has led the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen since 2010, said he will step down at the end of the year. Concerns about violations of internal election rules during the campaign prompted a union committee to recommend that the election be rerun, but Pierce said he didn't want to put the union through that divisive exercise.

Instead, he urged members to unify against the freight railroads in the fight to improve working conditions and abandon divisive rhetoric.

“If President-Elect Hall and the Advisory Board that he will preside over are to have any chance at success, the hateful rhetoric, division and infighting fostered by social media and egged on by outside non-member forces must end,” Pierce said. “The membership must stand united in the fight against the rail carriers, and stop blaming their union and its officers for the actions of those carriers.”

Hall learned about Pierce's decision while sitting in a railroad hotel on the road during his required downtime after driving a train out of Tucson, Arizona. As a vice local chairman of a regional union division, Hall was a longshot initially but his campaign gained steam with his focus on a need for new leadership.

Hall said his first priority will be working “to get our membership united and engaged in the union.” Then he can turn his attention to trying to persuade the railroads to reform the lean operating model they adopted that led to more than 45,000 job cuts across the industry over the past six years.

“People don’t coming to go to work anymore. I think these railroads -- I think these CEOs -- can get that back. They just got to change their plan,” Hall said.

The five-year contract that rail workers wound up with does include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses and the engineers narrowly approved that deal even though it didn't include any paid sick time other than three unpaid days that have to be scheduled 30 days in advance.

Congress intervened earlier this month to block a strike and impose a similar deal on four rail unions that rejected their contracts because of fears about the economic consequences of a strike.

The railroads did promise to negotiate further about improving the way regular days off are scheduled so engineers and conductors don't have to be on call 24-7. But many workers remain skeptical about how much those additional negotiations will help as long as the railroads maintain strict attendance policies that penalize them for missing any time.

CSX did recently announce several changes to ease its attendance rules that will make sure workers won't lose points for hospitalizations or documented medical appointments. But that shift to what the railroad said would become a “non-punitive” policy doesn't take effect until January.

In another encouraging sign for the unions, Norfolk Southern told investors that it won't be so quick to furlough workers the next time business slows down because executives realized that the railroad needed to keep more crews to help it be more resilient and ready to respond when demand returns. The first test of that policy will be the normal seasonal slowdown that's expected at the start of next year.

In the meantime, Hall and the BLET, along with the 11 other rail unions, will keep pressing for improvements in working conditions.

And right now they may be able to count on support from shippers and federal regulators who are unhappy with the delayed deliveries and missed shipments that have plagued the railroads over the past year. Service has generally been improving in recent months as the railroads hire and train more crews, but the businesses that rely on them have been pressing for more improvements.

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