This issue’s Rail, Mechanical and Engineering (RME) Department Report is from International Representative Larry Holbert:

During my 40-plus years as a railroader, I have always sought out opportunities to participate in my union, not only in the General Committee or at the International level, but also at my local union. As a lot of you have heard me say: At every level of our organization, we are only as strong as our local unions. While I’ve certainly seen a lot of changes in the last 40 years, this is one thing that has not changed — the local anchors us both to our fellow members and to our craft.

Attending local meetings over the years, I have always been fascinated when looking at each union’s original charter and reading the names and signatures of the brothers and sisters who drew on said charters to establish our locals, hold the first elections of officers and join their fellow workers in the International. The work confronting these past members required their commitment and dedication: They built their locals to be financially responsible, they drafted and adopted bylaws to govern their affairs, and they eagerly trained on their obligations at the International and on compliance with the law, learning to navigate the Department of Labor, IRS and various other regulatory agencies. Most importantly, they chose who they wanted to enforce their contracts, settle grievances, protect the rights of their members and ensure their work jurisdiction — electing their officers and, when necessary, stepping up to serve in elected roles.

The strength of our locals and the directions they have taken have always been determined by the consensus reached by membership when a local met — it was not just three or four members at meetings making decisions for the rest! Participation in one’s local not only helps members to look out for and support each other, but also builds a stronger and more resilient workforce and protects our trade. You might decide that you have better things in life to do than to attend a meeting, but when you find yourself injured on the job or terminated for not having your PPE on, you’re hoping a fellow member will be there to lend a hand. Or when the carrier gets the idea to remove all the sheet metal workers from the service tracks, you’re hoping you’ll have all your local brothers and sisters there to prove that it’s you and your fellow workers who make the trains run — not dangerous and cynical cost-saving measures.

Brothers and sisters, you need to get involved in your union, you need to serve as officers and continue getting educated; without dedicated officers, there would be no union to speak of. It’s easy to blame our current issues on past officers, but in my opinion, all it comes down to is the proper filing of claims and grievances and to the good retention of documents. Railroad workers have an excellent and effective process for handling claims and grievances under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act. Although I fully agree that nowadays this is much harder than it used to be — with the carriers assigning “labor relation experts” with very limited knowledge of the work we do to respond to our grievances — this only proves that now is the time for our local union leaders, armed with all the training and support that has been made available, to help build competitive and strong locals that are able to stand up to the carriers.

Local officers are the ones who are in the shops every day; they alone can see whether or not a contract is being lived up to, not your general chairperson and not the International. There are a lot of opportunities in this department to change things. We’re just waiting for you to get involved.

Tell us about yourself and your career at Amtrak.

Growing up as a young boy in the inner city of Washington, DC was very tough, but it built me into the man I am today. A memory at the precipice of my mind that I will never forget is losing my mother at the age of six years old. My life was split in two, and I felt like no one cared about me anymore. I did whatever I felt like doing, I skipped class and eventually stopped going to school for prolonged amounts of time. School became obsolete to me, and I opted for hanging out in the streets with older guys getting into things we had no business getting into.

My uncle did his best to raise my siblings and me, but it was becoming too much for him to handle holding down a job and keeping us out of trouble. He was left with the hard decision of separating us. I never knew who my father was, so my sister and I were sent to live with her father. It was the first time I lived in Kenilworth projects in DC; we had very little money and resorted to second-hand things as our source of having what we needed. Being the tallest of my eight siblings, hand-me-down clothes never really fit quite right. Pants were “high water,” shoes too tight, and sweaters with sleeves way too short. Living in poverty really lit a fire of determination within me to work and earn a living for myself.

It was living in the projects that spurred me to learn the type of work ethic I needed to survive. I was surrounded by negative influences: I saw people selling and doing drugs, drinking very young and stealing to make it through the day. Fortunately, I had a very loving step mother who — despite the mischievousness of my siblings and I — doted on us, instilled routine and structure, and steered us in the right direction. Looking back on it all, I am so grateful for her impact in my life.

I finished high school, had no trade and was not prepared for college. The summer following my high school graduation, I remember wondering to myself what my career would look like. I had dreams of having a family, with a loving home and a white picket fence, but it seemed unattainable at the time. I refused to sulk in what it would look like to not have these things, and focused on how to achieve these goals. That’s when I decided to attend the Diesel Institute of America and get a trade in diesel mechanics.

Having this trade opened the door for me to be hired at Amtrak as a laborer in 1984. After four years of hard work, I was given a promotion with the responsibility of operating locomotives and yard engines. One year following this promotion, I was given the opportunity to test for apprenticeship as a sheet metal pipefitter. I passed the test, and in 1989 I headed to Beech Grove, Indiana, as a member of the last apprenticeship class for Amtrak. Four years later I completed my apprenticeship and soon after was appointed as lead pipefitter in recognition of my hard work ethic.

As I saw my efforts start to be noticed, I grew the confidence to apply for a management role and got the position over 100 other applicants. After four and a half years working, commissioning new high speed rail trainsets and locomotives in Colorado and Pennsylvania, I decided to resign from management and focus again on helping raise my kids and being a sheet metal pipefitter. I had still been paying union dues to SMART, and I knew that by making this decision I could live comfortably and start my dreams of having and raising a family.

What advice would you give to a young person considering getting into this field?

The advice I have for the youth entering this field is to think about the long term and where you see yourself in the near future. My path started by getting into a trade: working with diesel engines, which transformed into working in sheet metal. This is a great field, and you can’t go wrong working in it. Start while you’re young and able to grow and advance with the technology, and hone the skills you’ll acquire along the way. Even if your plans and ambitions change later on, make sound decisions that will help you grow into a better version of who you are today.

My spouse at the time was able to raise our two beautiful daughters in our new home solely off the salary of a sheet metal pipefitter. It has been a very rewarding and providing career, and I would recommend it to the young folks trying to make a living for themselves and/ or their families.

What has been your involvement with SMART?

My involvement with SMART began by dispersing contract information along with information pertaining to the fields that spell out the SMART acronym to fellow pipefitters within the union. To further my commitment to the union, I ran for an officer’s position as financial secretary-treasurer. The local union needed my leadership and steady hand in order to get back in good standing.

During my time, we were successful in balancing the budget, getting membership dues up to date and passing a major audit. I took pride in servicing our members, and it was noticed by our General Chairman John McCloskey. He recommended I apply for the financial secretary-treasurer position for SMART General Committee II for passenger rails. I applied for the role and accepted the opportunity to serve as a board member while holding my place as financial secretary-treasurer for Local 363. With this new level of responsibility, I was able to travel across the country not only to audit 10 local books, but to fulfill my dream of exploring the United States.

SMART General Committee 2
SMART General Committee II

How has working for our union helped you?

Working with the union has helped me to understand what it means to be a part of something bigger, while also being a great contributor to my society and community closest to me. I believe we are all here to help serve one another in varying capacities, and the union was my avenue to serve. Because the union opened its doors for me to give back to my people, I was able to reflect on how I was truly walking in my calling. For that I am grateful.

Tell us something that might surprise people to know about you.

I have more than 38 years of perfect attendance, and I have only been tardy once. And on June 26, 2023, I will celebrate 39 years with Amtrak. The third thing people may be shocked to know about me is that I was a councilman for the Town of Fairmount Heights and that I ran for mayor of my town, only losing by 16 votes. The last thing others may be taken aback by is that I was a member of the team that broke the record for fastest train travel at a speed of 161 miles per hour. This was while I was working in Philadelphia, commissioning high speed trainsets. I guess you could say I am full of surprises.

What are you most proud of?

I would without question say that I am most proud of my daughters Whitney and Juel Downing, who bring a smile on my face at the sheer thought of them. Since birth they have been my pride and joy, something I desired and worked hard for ever since I was a young man. As adults they have exceeded my expectations by earning their bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. Growing up they have given me no issues whatsoever, and I can confidently say I have model children who have grown to become contributing members of society. This brings me the utmost pride.

On November 15, 2022, the Railroad, Mechanical and Engineering (RME) Department, in conjunction with General Committee 2, held its first in-person local representative training class in more than two years. The training, which was revamped in 2022, focuses on claim/grievance and discipline handling. Seventeen attendees representing 13 local unions attended the day-long training, which outlined the responsibilities of the local representative and provided guidance for filing claims/grievances and preparing for and representing members during discipline investigations.

The response from attendees was positive. “The training was very informative,” said Chuck Mullins from Metro North in Harmon, New York.

Rex Moore from BNSF in Lincoln, Nebraska, added that “the training was great.”

The RME Department has increased its training budget in order to expand the number and frequency of trainings in 2023 and beyond. “Our goal is to provide this training on an ongoing basis for current and newly elected local representatives,” said SMART International Representative Joe Fraley.

International Representative Larry Holbert agreed, saying: “We are committed to providing future training to our local leaders, making sure that they have the knowledge, tools and skills necessary to perform their elected duties more effectively and efficiently.”

The RME Department has scheduled a training session in January on the West Coast for representatives in California, as well as a class in the Northeast in February. The third training session will be scheduled in the third quarter of the year, giving newly elected officers the opportunity to attend.

“This training is the cornerstone for our local reps, as they are the men and women on the front lines representing the membership on a daily basis,” explained General Chairperson John McCloskey. “All of our local unions are urged to participate in the training that is provided,” concluded General Committee 2 Financial Secretary- Treasurer/Assistant General Chairperson Jason Busolt. “As elected officers, it is our duty to ensure that we provide the highest level of representation to the men and women we represent.”

The membership of the SMART Railroad, Mechanical and Engineering Department (SMART MD) has voted to ratify a tentative agreement with the carriers, after almost three years of negotiations between the union and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC). The vote was passed with a 54% margin in favor of the negotiated contract.

The ratified contract includes historic wage increases, five annual service recognition payments, an additional paid day off and enhanced healthcare benefits. Members will immediately receive a 13.5% wage increase, and members will also receive retroactive pay and $3,000 in service recognition payments within 60 days.

“It was up to our members to decide whether to accept this agreement, and the members have made the decision to ratify a contract with the highest wage increases we have ever seen in national freight rail bargaining,” said Joseph Sellers, Jr., general president of SMART. “However, we hear the concerns of our members who may be disappointed in the outcome of this vote, and I promise that we will never stop fighting to ensure that they receive the wages, benefits and working conditions that they deserve for keeping the American economy running.”

This month, we would like to pay homage to those who served in the Armed Forces. General Committee 2 is committed to recognizing its veteran members and making sure they know that we appreciate them and their service to our country. As a show of respect, however modest, this issue’s report is dedicated to honoring a veteran member whose service has extended into the work he’s done for fellow veterans on the railroad.

For Brother Styka, helping his fellow veterans is something about which he feels deeply passionate, and he values being able to apply the lessons he learned from his experiences to help make things easier for others.

Brother Toby Styka, a member of SMART Local 256 who works on Metra Chicago, is proud of his military service and passionate about assisting those who share his background. Having served in the Army from 1987 to 1995, including deployment during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, he understands the challenges servicemembers face when they return to civilian life, particularly around accessing benefits and support that will help them succeed. This is something Brother Styka himself encountered when he sought assistance for health issues that arose as a result of his service.

Realizing that many others might be confronting similar barriers, he started a veterans’ program at Metra for veterans to learn about the benefits they can receive and the programs available to them. For Brother Styka, helping his fellow veterans is something about which he feels deeply passionate, and he values being able to apply the lessons he learned from his experiences to help make things easier for others. Ultimately, Brother Styka is proud to support fellow veteran railroaders, and his program has been successful.

Beyond this important work, Brother Styka also enjoys hunting, taking trips on his motorcycle and travelling. He has been married to his wife, Tammy, for eight years, and he has two daughters, Kellie and Jenna, and two stepchildren, Morgan and Zach.

Since November 2019, SMART members in the Railroad, Mechanical and Engineering Department on Class 1 freight railroads have been engaged in intense negotiations with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), a coalition of employers representing the railroads. Throughout that entire time, the NCCC has continued its assault on labor by seeking agreements which are both unfair to workers and bad for the industry.

The NCCC’s wage proposals would result in an actual reduction in employee earnings in “real wages” (adjusted for inflation). The carriers have proposed such measures as increases to the amount of work that is contracted out and changes to the 40-hour work week, all while demanding that workers pay more for H&W coverage. Despite posting record profits during the pandemic, employers refuse to admit that it is the workers who have risked their lives to keep trains running. And after the experience of the pandemic, the carriers still refuse to agree to paid sick leave. Apparently, management doesn’t see the link between their higher earnings and the harder work performed by our members.

One thing is clear: Our members are prepared to seek the protections, wages and respect they deserve.

Unlike many at SMART, those working on the railroad negotiate with employers (the carriers) under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a law enacted in 1926 to settle labor disputes using arbitration and mediation instead of the more familiar collective bargaining model under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Because of the particular structure of bargaining under the RLA, parties often end up negotiating through the National Mediation Board (NMB), an independent federal agency that helps resolve contract issues. Repeated failures to reach an agreement can even result in negotiations being pushed to an emergency board established by the president of the United States.

After 18 months of unsuccessful bargaining, SMART’s coalition requested mediation from the NMB in June 2021. After several sessions of both mediation and “super mediation” – in which no productive dialogue occurred and carriers only offered deals that would substantially diminish any increase in compensation while simultaneously refusing the unions’ proposals – the NMB finally released the parties on June 17, starting a 30-day cooling off period.

On July 15, in order to avert a shutdown of the rail industry, President Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), an entity that is tasked with investigating rail disputes and issuing non-binding recommendations. Under the RLA, if a PEB concludes and the parties do not accept its recommendations within 30 days, the parties may then exercise “non-violent self-help” (strike or lockout). Ultimately, however, Congress has the final authority to impose a resolution, and it has done so in the past in order to avoid such an outcome.

While this process is complicated, we are hopeful that it will provide the framework for an agreement that is beneficial to workers. One thing is clear: Our members are prepared to seek the protections, wages and respect they deserve.