SMART-TD, BLET Leadership to Members: It’s Now Up To You

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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“It is now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members. This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.” – SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson

SMART-Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson on Sept. 30 issued an open letter to members stressing that a vote to ratify a tentative agreement struck with the carriers “is now yours.” His BLET counterpart, Dennis Pierce, handed off addressing his members to the BLET National General Chairmen’s Association (NGCA). BLET’s open letter said essentially the same thing, except, unlike Ferguson’s, it was not loaded with language harshly critical of the carriers and the entire bargaining process. Neither union, whose leaders negotiated the tentative agreement, encourages members to vote either for or against it. One industry observer finds this rather odd.

BLET’s complete letter can be read here. An excerpt:

“To be perfectly clear, this letter is not at all intended to tell members how to vote during ratification. Alternatively, our purpose here is simple. Our guidance herein is solely intended to better inform the membership as to how a national wage movement works by identifying those who play a role in the process and the procedural steps that must be taken in accordance with our Bylaws, in order for our members to make fully informed decisions when casting their ballot. And we genuinely hope this information is received accordingly. Lastly, as the balloting process approaches, we strongly urge every member to take advantage of their right to vote in favor or against the tentative agreement.”

SMART-TD’s Ferguson concluded his lengthy letter by saying, “As President of this Union, I will not sell members on this tentative agreement. It is my responsibility and duty to provide you with factual information and allow you to make an educated choice, based on the facts presented, that serves you and your family’s interest. Further, it would have been reckless of me to put your fate in the hands of politicians who know very little of the plight of a modern railroad worker in today’s PSR environment. Therefore, as it should be, the vote is now yours. No matter what your collective decision is, I will work to ensure it is heard and is acted upon.”

Ferguson’s closing statement is preceded by 18 paragraphs of mostly tough language that SMART-TD members could possibly infer as “don’t ratify this.” Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner, who has sat on both sides of the negotiating table over the years and is author of “Understanding the Railway Labor Act,” comments, “It is peculiar—even bizarre—that labor union presidents who negotiated tentative agreements in good faith, and signed their names to it, would now, in Ferguson’s case, not defend it, or in Pierce’s case, remain silent.”

Following are excerpts from Ferguson’s letter, which can be read in its entirety by clicking here:

  • “I understand the desire amongst many of you to strike. I know the contempt the carriers treat you with at work and have faced it in negotiations.”
  • “Our supply chain remained intact because of your efforts. How did the carriers respond? With nothing more than “labor doesn’t contribute to profits.” It is clear from not only their words, but also their actions that their sole focus was and still is to satisfy Wall Street investors and their constant desire to maximize profits.”
  • “From the beginning, it was clear that the carriers had no intent of negotiating in good faith. Their primary goal was to break our crew-consist agreements and force crew reductions upon us.”
  • “The carriers drew their line in the sand from the very beginning and claimed that, in their opinion, your demands were excessive and undeserved. We had no other choice but to prepare for a strike; and that’s exactly what we did throughout the cooling-off period.”
  • “Eventually, PEB 250 concluded and its jury made their ruling. Immediately it was clear the recommendations fell short. The quality-of-life issues we had fought so hard to achieve were negated, namely sick leave and the invalidation of attendance policies. Given that the additional holidays and sick leave were not included, the recommended wage increases should have been greater, and we had sound testimony to support it. The coalition hired an expert economist, and he clearly expressed what was needed in the form of an agreement to recruit and retain an adequate and talented workforce. Our stance was ignored, and the PEB members decided to meet both parties somewhere, theoretically, in the middle.”
  • “So, we pressed on until the 12th hour, when the political powers made it clear, regardless of what was portrayed in the media, that we would not be allowed to shut down America’s supply chain. In the final hours, we were successful in obtaining more, in spite of the headwinds and all who stated it was not possible.”

Editor’s Commentary: I’m just as puzzled as Frank Wilner. Jeremy Ferguson and his SMART-TD team negotiated in good faith and reached a compromise. That’s why it’s called “negotiating,” right? With all due respect to him as a railroader and a veteran, I do not fully understand why he would say things to his members that, in my opinion, are poisoning the well. I know many hard-working railroaders who love their jobs, are proud of what they do, are satisfied with how they are treated by their Class I employers, and accept the struggles and negative aspects of the job because they know that nothing is perfect, nor should it be. How does he think such people are going to take him saying things like, “I know the contempt the carriers treat you with at work”? I’d be a bit insulted. I might say, ”Wait a second, Jeremy. How do you know my personal situation? What gives you the right to try to convince me that I’m basically an underpaid, under-appreciated worker drone. Yeah, some of my co-workers complain a lot, and some of their gripes are legitimate. But that’s not me. You’re telling me you hammered out this deal on my behalf, for my benefit, but that it basically sucks? Really? Well, I can think for myself. You know what? I vote yes. This agreement may not be perfect, and I may not get everything I wish for, but that’s how life works.” Jeremy Ferguson, I am inviting you to sit down with me for an on-the-record interview with Railway Age. I promise you no trick questions. No confrontation. No agenda. Just respect, an open mind, and a listening ear. I would expect the same from you. You know how to reach me. — William C. Vantuono

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