The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen enters its 150th year on May 8, 2013. It is the oldest transportation labor organization in North America. Founded May 8, 1863, at Detroit, Mich., the BLET has its headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. It has more than 500 Divisions (locals) throughout the United States.
The first unit of the Brotherhood to be formed was Division 1 in Detroit, Mich., on May 8, 1863. In the three decades before the founding of the BLET, locomotive engineers suffered abominable working conditions. The 24-hour workday was commonplace. Railroad magnates rain roughshod over employees. Strikes were mercilessly crushed. Several attempts to organize locomotive engineers were made between 1855 and 1860. It wasn’t until April 1863, however, that William D. Robinson, a Michigan Central locomotive engineer, brought 19 men of the craft together at his home in Marshall, Mich., and inspired them toward the organization, which survives today. A monument marking the event still stands in Marshall. At a meeting in Detroit the following month, a dozen men agreed to put their destinies together. They cemented a common bond on May 8, 1863, elected Robinson as their Grand Chief Engineer (president), and named the group the Brotherhood of the Footboard. By August 1863, 10 Divisions had been established — Detroit and Marshall, Mich.; Michigan City, Ind.; Adrian, Mich.; Norwalk, Ohio; two at Chicago, Ill.; Lafayette, Ind.; Crestline, Ohio; and La Porte, Ind. The name Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) was adopted at the first national convention held in Indianapolis in August 1864.
In 2004, the BLE merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as the founding member of the Teamsters Rail Conference. After 140 years (1864-2004), the organization changed its name to Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). The BLET was the first labor organization to obtain contracts with railroads. Among the earliest was an agreement with the former New York Central in 1875. Today, the BLET has dozens of contracts with railroads large and small, and represents locomotive engineers on 98 percent of rail trackage in the United States. The BLET was a pioneer in the field of labor journalism. It began a monthly journal in 1867. Current official publications include a quarterly magazine, Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Journal, and a monthly newsletter, Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News. The National Division of the BLET has maintained a website since 1996, www.ble-t.org, posting daily news stories and periodic News Flash updates that are emailed to thousands of members.
In cooperation with other railroad brotherhoods, the BLET spearheaded the drive to make the 24-hour workday illegal. This was accomplished in 1907 through the Hours of Service Act, which set a 16-hour maximum. The Adamson Act of 1916, providing for the eight-hour day, was also a result of the BLET’s leadership. An original copy of the Act is kept at BLET National Division headquarters in Cleveland, along with the fountain pen used by President Woodrow Wilson to sign the legislation. It was the first federal law dealing with overtime pay. The BLET also had a leading role in persuading Congress to pass the Railway Labor Act in 1926. The act, amended several times since then, provides procedures for handling labor-management disputes over wages and working conditions. The Railroad Retirement and Unemployment Insurance Acts, which became effective in 1937, are railroad industry’s counterparts of the Social Security system. They represent another instance of social progress in which the BLET played an important part.
The Brotherhood has always been proud to support America’s soldiers and their families. Born in the midst of the Civil War, our union’s membership has been comprised of veterans of every major military conflict since, up to and including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With BLET members at the throttle, U.S. railroads carried 90 percent of all military freight and 97 percent of all military passenger movements during World War II. Greater safety on the job and greater safety for the shipping and traveling public have always been BLET’s goals.
Legislative activities by the BLET and other rail unions have resulted in the Locomotive Inspection Act and statutes requiring the use of air brakes, automatic couplers, electric headlights, power-reverse gears and other technological improvements. The BLET was again at the forefront in persuading Congress to include implementation of Positive Train Control technology to make the rail industry safer and more efficient, and important whistleblower provisions to protect workers who report unsafe conditions while on duty in the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
National President Dennis R. Pierce is the 23rd chief in the BLET’s long history. He has held the post since July 1, 2010, succeeding Paul T. Sorrow, who retired. The BLET represents more than 55,000 active and retired locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States.