Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another trip down memory lane as nation's oldest union approaches its 150th birthday

Three weeks from now, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen—now part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Today marks an important, if somewhat bittersweet, date in the history of the country’s oldest union.

In 1991, BLET took to the picket lines as part of a nationwide railway strike to protest a lack of progress after almost two years of negotiations with carriers as part of the wage/rules movement. The two sides had been at a stalemate since mid-1989, and even the National Mediation Board couldn’t help efforts to reach an agreement. As part of the process, Presidential Emergency Board No. 219 was appointed to recommend a solution to the dispute. Freight carriers convinced the board that the engineers needed to make more concessions, again disappointing BLET.

So BLET went on strike, but it was short-lived. In less than 24 hours, Congress passed legislation that President George H.W. Bush signed into law, ordering the rail workers back to work. Larry McFather, then-BLET president, told The New York Times that management raised public fears about the strike by stopping Amtrak's passenger service on long-distance lines. Such management action and White House collaboration left Congress no choice but to act. "We believe that Congress all along wanted, as we did, a negotiated settlement, but management would not allow it," he said.

As part of the new law, President Bush appointed a special three-person board to reconsider and clarify the recommendations of Presidential Emergency Board No. 219. But the new panel in a July 1991 report basically rubber stamped the recommendations of the earlier emergency board that required employees to pay a portion of their health insurance, among other things.

BLET, however, has persevered. In 2004, it merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as the founding member of the Teamsters Rail Conference. And it is returning to its birthplace of Detroit next month to host a celebration of its historic anniversary. A series of meetings and events will culminate with a celebratory banquet the evening of May 8. All active and retired members are invited to attend. Registration information is available at