Published: Oct 22 2015 4:11PM
The history of the advance and growth of American railroads is an episode in the saga of a people's restless urge to explore and to move on. Heeding that urge, these people expanded into the far corners of the North American Continent, moving as slow or as fast as their means of transportation allowed. This movement began in earnest only after the railroad's steel web was spun from coast-to-coast. Once the rail system was established, the great construction gangs began to settle down and maintain that which they had built. But, while the robber barons of the early railroads amassed great fortunes, their employees worked from dawn to dusk for pennies a day without insurance, vacations or means of support after years of hard work. It was these conditions that inspired early rail workers to organize collectively and form unions to protect their common interests.
One such union was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE). The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes - later to become the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED) - is a national union representing the workers who build and maintain the tracks, bridges, buildings and other structures on the railroads of the United States. Founded in 1887, at Demopolis, Alabama, as a fraternal organization by Track Foreman John T. Wilson, the BMWED membership forms a cross section of American culture. Their goals, interests and political backgrounds are as diversified as their heritage. Once an International union with over 350,000 members in the United States and Canada, automation, the rise of the trucking and airline industries, coupled with the policies of a conservative government, has depleted the ranks of the BMWED to under 40,000 members. Since the passage of the Staggers Rail Act of 1978, railroad management, using competition as an excuse and the anti-union climate as an ally, has been selling or abandoning the nation's rail system. Realizing that our country is losing a vital link in its transportation network, the BMWED struggles to reverse this trend. Using our rich history as a guide - drawing on the strength of the union - we confront management in the halls of Congress and the State Legislatures, through use of our newspaper the BMWED Journal, the nation's court system and at the bargaining tables.
It was in 2004 that the BMWE merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and consolidated its strength with that of the powerful 1.4 million member Teamster Union. As a part of the Teamster Rail Division the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division continues the battle that John T. Wilson courageously fought in the face of so much opposition.
Rail labor leaders continue the fight today for job security, better working conditions, fair wages and benefits, improved safety conditions and elimination of massive cutbacks. The benevolent society that started with a few trackmen on a hot July day in Alabama has shown that it can meet the challenges and problems of an ever-changing industry and will continue to protect its members' rights as it has for more than a century.