A Call for Unity: Reflections on BLET and SMART-TD Infighting

Written by Jason Doering
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Frank N. Wilner’s Watching Washington article on the infighting between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD) offers a stark reminder of our industry’s perennial struggles. As a railroader who has spent two decades in the trenches and anticipates two more, I have witnessed the impact of such divisions firsthand. However, instead of dwelling on the discord, let us envision a future inspired by the unity that pioneering labor leader Eugene V. Debs so passionately championed.

Eugene V. Debs once said, “We need to have faith in each other. We are in precisely the same position. We depend absolutely on each other. We know that without solidarity, nothing is possible, and that with solidarity, nothing is impossible.” This quote resonates deeply as we consider the current state of our unions. What if, rather than succumbing to internal strife, we heeded Debs’ call for solidarity?

Recent events at Norfolk Southern (NS) and the subsequent discord between BLET and SMART-TD have highlighted how these divisions weaken us. These are not mere disagreements; they are fractures that threaten to dismantle everything we have fought for. Historically, craft unions have been plagued by battles over jurisdiction and representation. These battles have allowed rail companies to exploit our divisions, leading to detrimental practices such as Remote-Controlled Operations (RCOs) and single-person operations. These practices compromise our safety and working conditions, proving that fighting for individual gains at the expense of collective strength only sets us back.

The craft union strategy has failed to prevent a North American railroad system dominated by Precision Scheduled Railroading. This failure has led to the loss of tens of thousands of railroad jobs in the past decade and a decline in union membership among railroad workers.

Imagine the power we could wield if BLET and SMART-TD united. Together, we could strengthen our bargaining positions, ensuring that our members receive the wages, benefits and working conditions they deserve. Our collective voice would be a force rail management could not ignore.

What if we shared our knowledge and resources? Collaboration could lead to enhanced safety standards and operational efficiency, benefiting not only our members but the entire rail industry. By working together, we could develop innovative solutions to the challenges we face, from technological advancements to evolving labor needs.

Our history is marred by failed mergers and ongoing rivalries, but these should not define our future. The lessons of the past underscore the cost of division. Declining membership and weakened bargaining power are the inevitable results of our infighting. Yet, we have the power to change this narrative.

As a railroader with a vested interest in our collective success, I believe we have an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. We can honor the legacy of Debs by fostering a culture of collaboration and mutual respect. This is not just a call for peace but a call for strategic partnership aimed at strengthening our position.

We must ask ourselves: What if we embraced unity not just as a strategy but as a fundamental principle? What if we chose to see each other not as competitors but as partners in a shared mission to elevate the standards of our profession?

Wilner’s article rightly points out the dangers of our current path. The stakes are high, and the challenges are significant. But by rekindling the spirit of unity that Eugene V. Debs so passionately advocated, we can transform our industry. We can build a future where BLET and SMART-TD stand together, stronger and more resilient, ready to face the challenges of the 21st century.

We must refrain from finger-pointing at one another for past sins. No rail craft union is pure; all have failed rail workers in the past, broken ranks, curried favor with the rail carriers, sold out, and backstabbed one another—not just in recent decades—but dating back to the 1880s when craft unions actually scabbed on one another and actively broke each other’s strikes. While this sordid record is inexcusable, it has been the nature of the divisive craft union system.

In unity, there is strength. And in strength, there is the promise of a brighter future for all railroaders. Let us move forward together, with the wisdom of the past guiding our steps and the promise of a unified future lighting our way.

This is our moment. This is our call. Unite now for the future of all rail labor. Stand together, fight together, and triumph together.

Jason Doering, with 20 years of experience as a locomotive engineer and conductor, is an advocate for transportation safety and workers’ rights. He is a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 766 in Las Vegas, a former Nevada State Legislative Director for SMART Transportation Division, and a former General Secretary of Railroad Workers United.

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