CLEVELAND — The SMART Transportation Division’s National Training Seminar (NTS) began Tuesday, with TD President Jeremy Ferguson emphasizing that the organization is working hard to fill the needs of its membership.

“Whether it be through educational offerings, such as the week-long NTS running through July 11, or superior representation for the people the union serves and contracts, SMART-TD will stay ahead of the game,” he said.

Intensive officer training prepares the union for the road ahead

Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson addresses the audience at the National Training Seminar on Tuesday.

More than 700 bus and rail officers are attending the first national training seminar since the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2024 NTS follows a series of intensive regional events, each designed to provide key training for union officers from the legislative, chairperson and local levels.  Attendees took part in officer-specific training flights, many for the first time.

“The training is going to be intense,” President Ferguson said of the national training program. “No matter what training you are going through, no matter what craft you are representing, you are going to leave here confident in what you are tasked to do in your position, and you are going to be able to go back and represent your members at the highest quality level.

“Don’t be overwhelmed if you think it’s too much,” he assured newer attendees, reminding them that SMART University, officers at all levels and staff at the Transportation Division office will all be available for assistance when needed. “Everybody is going to be here to support you in the learning process.”

Remembering two fallen members

The attendees also at the request of President Ferguson observed a moment of silence for the recent loss of two active members.

Local Vice President Colin Nichols of Local 486 (Glendive, Mont.) died July 1 as the result of an accident at his home at age 44.

Member Justin Pender of Local 577 (Northlake, Ill.), died July 6 at the Proviso Yard near Chicago in an on-the-job accident. Member Pender, 27, a Union Pacific conductor, is the first on-duty loss for our organization in 2024. The accident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

A drive to provide the best possible representation

The past five years have been one of substantial transformation for SMART-TD and for rail labor, Ferguson noted.

“Over the past five years, it’s not what I did as president. It’s not what we did as an administration. It’s what we all did as a union,” he said. “Whatever the case may be, we did it better than everybody else, and we did it to win.”

SMART-TD’s ability to get results for their members has not gone unnoticed. Recent friction with the new leadership of another labor organization has emerged, as properties ready for strong representation switch to SMART-TD.

Officers from a pair of the new properties that are new to the SMART-TD — the Louisville & Indiana and Montana Rail Link were also recognized. Local Chairperson Zach Cochran and Local 426 members Ryan Burns, Joshua Olson and Bryan Trimbo were all attending their first SMART-TD training session.

 “We have a duty and an obligation to do what’s right for you all, for our members and for this union,” Ferguson said. “We are not desperate for members. We are rebounding. Who’s desperate are the members who are looking for good representation. That’s what the national officers, the general committees, the state boards and you as local officers have been putting out. That’s why members are coming over in droves.”

The effort has led to the creation of engineer-focused “E-committees” in many locals, which provide focus and attention for the rail engineers who prefer to stay with SMART-TD.

Legislation to protect two-person crews develops

National Legislative Director Greg Hynes then updated those in attendance of the Railway Safety Act’s progress in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, the chair of the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, introduced a bill that maintains the two-person crew provision set forth by a version that has already passed through committee in the U.S. Senate. SMART-TD’s legislative department will continue to monitor and support this crucial legislation.

Additional speakers included Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO President Greg Regan, Railroad Retirement Board Labor Member John Bragg and Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose.

Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker began the proceedings by taking special note of the long history that both the union and railroad industry have in the city, noting that many of SMART-TD’s predecessor unions had their headquarters in Cleveland and the surrounding area, a tradition that continues today.

SMART News recently released a story regarding organizer Andy Goeckner’s thoughts on how the Louisville & Indiana (L&I) Railroad members became a part of our union. One would expect the lead organizer to paint a positive picture, so in efforts to get a different perspective, we reached out to a few of our new brothers at the L&I and asked them the very same questions.

Brother Steve McBroom is a 32-year veteran of the railroad industry who has seen more than his fair share of territory. McBroom worked for BNSF until 2020 and has worked for a handful of different short line railroads. He has been a member of our predecessor union, the UTU, SMART-TD, and the BLE.

Brother Dustin Dudley is the newly elected Vice Local Chairperson for the L&I’s LCA in Indianapolis’ Local 1518 and has over 20 years of railroad experience working for Norfolk Southern from 2003 through 2023. Last summer, he left the NS and joined the Louisville and Indiana Railroad, looking for a change in quality of life and hoping to avoid a career sleeping in hotels.

In the two decades Dudley was with NS, he was local chairperson of SMART-TD Local 1328. When he came to the L&I in the summer of 2023, there was already plenty of interest in the crew base about joining the SMART railroad union. When his new coworkers approached him about the idea of leaving the BLE in favor of SMART-TD, he tried to stay out of the conversation initially. “I told those guys I’m a trainee. I don’t even have a vote right now.” But the more Dudley learned about his new surroundings, the more difficult it became for him to remain silent.

When asked what some of the issues were that made the members of L&I consider changing representation, McBroom and Dudley had several examples to share.

“It all boiled down to a lack of trust,” McBroom said. “We saw how our previous leadership team handled our last contract negotiation. With our next contract negotiation coming up, we knew how important it was for us to be with an organization that would stand up for us.”

Predecessor’s contracts, communication fell short

McBroom said that, for starters, the contracts being achieved by their former union weren’t to members’ satisfaction.

“In the last round of negotiations, our general chairman from the BLE settled for $4 a day for our guys to work an RCO job. Apparently, that was where the company started, and our GC agreed with it.” he said. “Additionally, our assigned BLE GC signed a side letter with the railroad without consulting any of our members and to make it worse, he never bothered to inform us that he had signed it. We operated for two months without knowing we had a new agreement. It cost our members hundreds of dollars in runaround claims that we had no idea we were owed or should be putting in. When it came to light at a meeting, his response was, “My bad. I forgot to tell you.” Like I said, we lost faith in their organization’s ability and will to properly represent us. That’s the long and short of it.”

Much like Brother McBroom, Dudley also took offense to the BLE’s lack of communication on contract negotiations. He pointed out the same two examples that McBroom provided, stating that the BLE general chairman did not take the time to inform the members that their agreement had changed or ask for their thoughts on the RCO pay issue.

“We’ve always come back on the board first out after a rest day. The GC signed an agreement in October of 2023 that changed that to where we would come off our rest days last out,” he said. “That is a good thing, but he didn’t bother to tell any of us about it until January of 2024! That is not leadership and is simply disrespectful. And it isn’t like we can look back on the computer system and figure out who is owed what claims because our extra board is kept on a chalkboard! There’s no accounting for what our guys lost from that mistake.”

Dudley also reiterated that they were not part of the discussion on how much of an allowance they should receive for operating an RCO box. “Again, that is simply disrespectful.”

Misinformation and baseless threats

On top of the lack of trust in the ability of their prior organization to represent their best interests, the crew base on the L&I said they lost faith that they were being told the truth from BLE leadership. Once the BLE learned they were in jeopardy of losing L&I as members, workers there said they pulled out all the stops with BLE President Eddie Hall making personal calls to members trying to sell them on staying with his union.

Brother McBroom stated that when Hall called him about staying with the BLE, he used scare tactics by saying, “SMART-TD could easily abandon you like they did to the Arizona Eastern Railroad. If they do that, you would all be (at-will) employees when they decide to walk away from you.” Curious, McBroom took the time to investigate that accusation himself.

McBroom said what he found was that “the story Hall told us about the Arizona Eastern Railroad and SMART-TD was a total misrepresentation of what happened. Those guys in Arizona thought they could get a better contract if they dropped the union, and SMART told them they disagreed, but wouldn’t hold them hostage. So, they allowed them to vote and abided by the result. SMART-TD didn’t abandon those guys, they got tricked by their carrier and walked away from the union. I didn’t appreciate his scare tactics or his twisting of the truth, and it didn’t help with the trust issues we already had with him or the organization.”

Dudley stated: “When I got to the L&I, there was already some distrust of the BLE going around. Once they heard we were considering leaving, that’s when they came in trying to scare us with their half-truths. Actually, I don’t even know if I can call them half-truths, they were downright lies.

“First, Hall tried to tell us we would lose our contract and have to start over from scratch, which simply was not true. Then he tried to scare everyone with his fabricated Arizona & Eastern story.”

When Hall attended a town hall meeting with L&I workers to win them back, McBroom and Dudley said that those in attendance called him out on his “misinformation of facts.”

“Eddie Hall, the president of the BLE, came to talk with us and started telling our guys lies about SMART-TD and how it treated the Arizona and Eastern Railroad. I was so mad, I was shaking,” Dudley said. “It was hard to imagine he thought we would actually believe what he was trying to sell us. What he claimed SMART did doesn’t even line up with Department of Labor regulations.”

SMART-TD had the documented proof to prove otherwise (see below), and when it was presented to Eddie Hall, he didn’t have a thing to say and left.

Unfortunately, President Hall continues to try and sell his Arizona & Eastern story.

“Just more lies,” Dudley said.

Improved accessibility and open lines

Dudley and McBroom were asked if they have seen any changes or improvements in the month since they came on board with SMART-TD. They were quick to point out that the level of communication and access to information have been the biggest immediate changes.

“The difference is night and day with our level of access to information and to officers. Since we joined SMART-TD, any one of us can call Andy Goeckner, Rick Lee, or even President Ferguson. Our questions get answered, or someone calls us back with an answer. The access to the information our guys need has been remarkable. I’m not an officer in this local, just a member, but that doesn’t seem to matter to these guys. They really want us all to have what we need to be successful.”

VLC Dudley agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiments from Brother McBroom.

“The level of communication is a big change. I can call Andy (Goeckner), Rick (GC Lee), or even Tommy (GC Gholson of GCA 898), hell I was just texting back and forth with Jeremy (SMART-TD President Ferguson) the other day,” Dudley said. “They are doing everything they can to get our guys where they need to be. The culture and the attitude are a huge change for us. These guys all go out of their way to be helpful. This is what true union representation is all about.”

The SMART Transportation Division achieved an organizing win May 1 with the National Mediation Board’s (NMB) certification of a representation vote for the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, which operates 106 miles of track running between Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis.

Andy Goeckner of Local 453, who led the effort, took some time to detail the process that brought new members and a new property to the union.

What initiated the process?

Contrary to what some have incorrectly claimed online, this was 100% unsolicited on SMART-TD’s part. Multiple L&I employees had been reaching out to people in the industry expressing their disappointment with the representation they’d been receiving on the property. This had been happening since the end of 2023, and it wasn’t just one disgruntled employee — it wasn’t until we heard from multiple people that we decided to sit down and talk to the group.

What were some of the issues cited by people that they wanted to have changed?

Substandard representation, wages and agreements. Feeling that their property lacked support at the local level. Rather than encouraging or assisting their local union leadership to stand against the carrier and fight in disciplinary matters, the previous organization’s general committee and international took the path of least resistance, encouraging members to fold and sign waivers. Almost as if they couldn’t be bothered by a smaller group to do what needed to be done.

They also stated that pay and penalty claim issues were ignored when assistance was requested at the general committee or international level. Phones calls and emails were not returned. With negotiations for a new contract starting soon, many of them felt like their property had been put in a corner or a box and that they were not getting anything out of the dues they had been paying. Enough was enough, so they decided it was time to make a change and come to SMART-TD.

Once we got the message across that SMART-TD provided a dedicated alternative that would listen to and serve them properly, regardless of if it was a small or large property, the energy increased and was very positive. This wasn’t a case where just one guy was mad or upset about what was going on — it was multiple people, and many of them took on leadership roles as the effort advanced and gained strength.

How long had the prior organization represented the property?

L&I had been under the representation of the BLE for 20 years — since May 2004.

It’s been a month, what are some of the steps/improvements that our union is prioritizing?

The first thing SMART-TD did was to allow the new members to select what local they wanted to join. They chose Local 1518 in Indianapolis, and a new Local Committee of Adjustment (LCA) was created within. They were also placed into General Chairperson Rick Lee’s committee, as L&I was a prior B&O property before being short-lined.

The L&I members held an election and Zach Cochran is the new local chairperson. Brother Cochran has hit the ground running and is doing all he can to get great returns for people working at the L&I.

Our focus has been on improving communications and responsiveness, which were a weak point with the previous union. We are also in the process of training and assisting the local officers and addressing membership issues, including prepping for their next contract, which expires this fall.

Has there been any feedback so far?

I’ve been staying in touch with them to make sure the transition is smooth. A group of L&I members went to the 1518 meeting as soon as they were eligible to do so, and they were blown away by the reception that they got from Local 1518 officers and members. They welcomed them with open arms and gave them a standing ovation and applause at the local union meeting. They said they had not felt welcomed or included on any union level like that in a long, long time.

The SMART-TD rail union gets results

A total of 23 T&E workers for the short line — more than half of its total workforce — can now proudly call themselves members of SMART-TD after dealing with the frustration and dissatisfaction caused by inferior representation.

We welcome our new members from the Louisville & Indiana railroad and encourage others that are tired of subpar representation to join our SMART TD family. There is a reason we are the largest rail labor union in the United States, and we stand behind the winning record SMART-TD has produced for the people whom we proudly serve.