A labor leader who understood economics

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Dan Johnson died last week. He was 67. You probably neither knew him nor recognize his name. Yet if you are a railroader, he touched your life in meaningful ways.

Johnson was a union officer, but not of the bloviator or fulminator sort. He was a thinker—a strategic thinker, which led him to study, question, understand and endlessly discuss the economics of business enterprise, along with the art and science of labor management relations, which too often are difficult and even alien concepts for many labor leaders.

And contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject, Johnson won elections at all levels of his union not by promising the unachievable, but by speaking his mind against radical proposals and expounding a business unionism vision that job security, higher wages and superior benefits first require a financially healthy employer. Greater labor peace; better job security, wages and benefits for rail workers; and improved carrier finances and customer service were among Johnson’s many contributions to American railroading.

Johnson retired in 2007 as general secretary and treasurer of the United Transportation Union (now the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union).

Having pursued undergraduate and graduate work in government and history at the University of Arizona, Johnson considered a career in education. As railroaders know, railroads beckon. Having signed on as a trainman with Southern Pacific in Tucson in 1966 while in college, he remained; and quickly began the climb up the union political ladder as a local chairman, general chairman, Arizona state legislative director, International vice president and finally UTU’s general secretary and treasurer.

Some reckon Johnson might instead have become a Southern Pacific (now part of Union Pacific) vice president, but he saw—and continued to see—his future in the labor movement, helping others through education, training and representation.

By not waving at friends in the audience, Johnson gained broad respect among the union rank-and-file. His favorite four-letter word was “work,” and he challenged every labor voice that advocated “strike” over negotiating new voluntary agreements that kept rail employees on the job and among the top 6% or better of wage earners nationwide.

Johnson’s message was plain-dealing: “[To remain] among the world’s highest paid and best benefited workforce … requires that both sides understand the needs of the other … exploring each other’s problems, and mutually suggesting a range of trade-offs [resulting in] mutually acceptable solutions.” Such interest-based bargaining, Johnson counseled, “is in contrast to each side simply announcing demands and contentiously seeking surrender of the other side—a process that, more often than not, results in Congress forcing both sides to a settlement neither fully desires.”

In helping to negotiate in 2002 a national agreement by which the UTU embraced the use of remote control belt-packs, Johnson presented a history lesson on how his predecessors failed in trying to maintain five-person train crews and how no labor union ever prevented the implementation of new technology. In defending acceptance of the new technology in exchange for job security and a sharing of its cost savings, Johnson challenged his membership, “Are you willing to bet your job [that you can stop new technology]?” The vote in favor of embracing remote control was overwhelming.

Johnson fought as many personal demons as he did management ones—alcoholism, cancer, partial paralysis and an antibiotic resistant staph infection that required daily dressing of an open wound. In successfully urging ratification in 2003 of a healthcare insurance plan initiating employee cost sharing in the face of skyrocketing hospital and prescription medication costs, Johnson told his members, “Modern medicine not only has kept me alive, but permits me to work full time and enjoy leisure activities. One of every seven families is without healthcare insurance. Almost every family fortunate enough to be insured has a healthcare plan with fewer benefits than railroaders enjoy. We should not take our healthcare insurance for granted.”

Johnson similarly advocated interest-based bargaining to help restore the financial security of the Railroad Retirement System, whose $20 billion trust fund was in danger of going broke in the decades ahead. Johnson counseled against then-existing ultra-conservative money managing, which required the trust fund be invested solely in low-yield government securities. Such an investment strategy, he said, threatens either future pension payments to retired railroaders, or will require higher payroll taxes” that Johnson warned would “discourage the hiring of new employees and reduce money available to pay improved wages and benefits.” Among the fixes was congressional agreement allowing trust fund assets to be invested in private-sector equities. Johnson’s leadership was rewarded by his election as a founding trustee of the National Railroad Retirement Investment Trust.

One of Johnson’s few failed advocacies was merger of the railroad industry’s two operating unions—the UTU and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. In a call to action—“We Must Stop the ‘Race to the Bottom’”— Johnson recommended unification of operating crafts as a countervailing power to railroad mega-mergers that reduced the number of Class I railroads from more than 30 to just seven major systems. UTU members voted in favor of the merger; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers did not, subsequently being absorbed into the Teamsters Union. The UTU was then absorbed into the larger Sheet Metal Workers International Association.

Among Johnson’s survivors is his wife, Jan, whom he credited with giving him the strength to overcome his many physical disabilities. They resided in a Pulte/Del Webb active-adult retirement community in Lincoln, Calif.

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