Socialists Eyed in BLET Prez Loss

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
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Edward A. Hall, incoming BLET President. Photo from Hall’s campaign website

Dennis R. Pierce is out as President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) following his election defeat by Edward A. Hall, who will take office Jan. 1. Although an alleged impropriety involving outside influence by a socialist organization would have permitted, under union bylaws, a revote, Pierce chose to retire instead and urged that Hall be installed by acclimation as the new BLET president.

Pierce, now 64, was first elected BLET president in December 2010 in the union’s first one-member-one vote election. Prior to 2010, BLET national officers were elected by delegates representing each of its some 500 divisions (known as locals in most unions). Subsequently unchallenged, Pierce was reelected by acclamation in 2014 and 2018 for successive four-year terms.

Only 27% of the union’s 30,614 eligible members bothered to cast ballots in this most recent BLET national officer election, giving Hall a 509-vote victory—4,331-3,822. An allegation that BLET’s election rules had been violated by an outside organization led a BLET Protest Committee to order a new election, but Pierce, in a Dec. 16 letter to the membership, said he would decline to run a second time.

While the BLET has not publicly identified the nature of the election protest, Railway Age was told it involved alleged improper support provided Hall by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), which describes itself as an “online newspaper of the international Trotskyist movement” and is published by the International Committee of the Fourth International. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a Russian Marxist revolutionary.

BLET’s Vice President-Elect Mark Wallace (formerly a BLET senior officer on Norfolk Southern) wrote in pre-election support for Pierce that Hall “has embraced help from an anti-union, non-BLET group [that] is determined on destroying the very fabric of our union movement.” The WSWS rejected the Hall support allegation, saying, “the WSWS has never endorsed Hall.” Hall allegedly embraced WSWS materials in his campaign effort.

By retiring from union office and now lending his support to Hall, Pierce is attempting to safeguard the BLET and other rail unions from the airing of divisive rhetoric. All of rail labor is seeking to heal following a contentious round of national contract collective bargaining that ended with Congress imposing on four of 12 rail labor unions a Tentative Agreement ratified by eight of them, including the BLET.

Visible in Pierce’s rear-view mirror are relatively recent scandals involving his predecessors. BLET President Don Hahs was suspended from office in 2007 following allegations he embezzled almost $60,000 used to purchase sporting-events tickets and to pay travel expenses for his spouse. There were no criminal charges.

Hahs’ successor, Edward W. Rodzwicz, was criminally charged for accepting bribes from personal injury attorneys in exchange for helping them solicit clients among on-the-job injured locomotive engineers. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

Rail unions typically name a dozen or more Designated Legal Counsel who are given honorary union membership and allowed in attendance at otherwise closed union meetings and recommended by the union to handle individual personal injury lawsuits brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA).

When two presidents—Byron A. Boyd and Charles L. Little—of BLET rival United Transportation Union (now the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART-TD) were each sentenced in 2004 to 24 months in federal prison on charges of bribery and racketeering, Boyd blamed the FELA arrangement.

Prior to sentencing, Boyd told the court that some attorneys had paid as much as $30,000 to be granted preferred access to injured union members. “The system has gone on for generations, and the system goes on as we stand here today,” Boyd said. There are no allegations of FELA improprieties in Pierce’s election loss to Hall.

These unrelated rail union scandals are noteworthy as they caused, at the time, considerable membership unrest. Pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook Internet-based social media lit up at the time for weeks with derogatory comments by union members toward their elected leadership.

Moreover, the BLET is aligned since 2004 with the once organized-crime-riddled Teamsters Union. It was only in 2020 that a Department of Justice Independent Review Board ended a five-year phase out of Teamsters Union internal affairs oversight dating to a 1989 consent decree allowing the union to avoid prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. (The federal prosecutor, who subsequently became New York City’s mayor, was the now disgraced Rudy Giuliani.) Current Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, in office only since March 2022 and long active with Teamsters reform efforts, stood alongside Pierce at the union’s October national convention, offering praise.

Pierce served as chief negotiator for 10 of the 12 rail unions, and all 12 during the final weeks of what were more than 30 months of direct negotiations on contract amendments setting wages, benefits and work rules. Pierce repeatedly took no position on the Tentative Agreement he largely shepherded and personally signed as he walked a tightrope while eyeing his own reelection bid. 

Hall made that Tentative Agreement the central issue in his election challenge to Pierce, saying, “It is clear to me that the national membership is dissatisfied with our leadership and the decisions made by them when it comes to a National Agreement.”

The WSWS opposed the Tentative Agreement as concessionary, giving a public platform to members of all 12 rail labor unions to express their opposition to what the WSWS termed, “the Biden-sponsored contract settlement.”

Hall, responding to concerns that he had not previously held a national union leadership post, said, “The question that every BLET member should be asking is not if leadership is seasoned and experienced, but rather, has our leadership effectively done their job.”

Prior to being hired by Southern Pacific (now part of Union Pacific) in El Paso, Tex., in 1995, Hall was a corrections officer in Houston. After earning a community college degree in accounting and computer science, he partnered with his brother in real estate acquisition, rental and management.

Hall was promoted to locomotive engineer in Tucson, Ariz., in 1998 and elected a BLET division officer in 2010, rising to First Vice Local Chairperson for Division 28 in Tucson. 

Pierce began his rail career in 1977 on Burlington Northern (now BNSF) in Lincoln, Neb., as a maintenance-of-way worker and then locomotive fireman, rising to locomotive engineer in 1981. He became a BLET Division 98 officer in 1991, a general chairperson in 2001 and a BLET vice president in 2008.

Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner is author of “Understanding the Railway Labor Act.” He was formerly director of public relations for the UTU and SMART-TD, an assistant vice president for policy at the Association of American Railroads and a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation. He described the pros and cons of FELA in an article (“FELA: Durable and Still Going”) in the July 2017 print edition of Railway Age.

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