Most steel mills have train service both inside and to the property that moves supplies and product in and out. The major steel mills usually owned their “in-plant” railroads. They also usually were wholly owned subsidiaries that functioned under the arcane rules of the Rail Labor Act and rail transportation regulations. Each Bethlehem Steel Corporation Mill had one of their own. At Steelton, we had the Steelton-Highspire Railroad.
As the Mills dwindled in size and new technology transported goods and materials, the in-plant railroads became a shadow of their former size and importance. In Bethlehem’s case, the unit across the entire company had shrunk from thousands at one point, to just a couple hundred. Some were under the traditional railroad unions and some, like the SHRR were represented by the United Steelworkers (USW). As they became less important, their ability to get contract improvements equal to the master steel contracts diminished as well. But it wasn’t until the consolidation of Bethlehem into International Steel Group (ISG) that we had the opportunity to fold these workers into the master ISG contract.
To bring all the railroads in the ISG system under the master Agreement we had to go to workers represented by non-USW unions and convincing them to join the USW and come under the USW agreement with ISG. I was assigned to do that.
I put together a 20 slide PowerPoint presentation, tossed a projector and computer in the van, and hit the road to visit the various RR wash houses in the ISG system. It wasn’t a particularly tough sell because once the railroaders understood the master agreement and understood how the law would treat their benefits, they stood to gain in a big way. Mostly it was education.
At one large facility the USW Local Union gave me one of their young grievance men to get me through the Mill safely and help with the presentations. The first morning Tom and I set up in a washroom for the 6am shift change. The guys coming of the 11pm to 7am turns were dog tired and clearly were put out that they had to listen to 20 slides of contract information. There really isn’t many ways to spice that content up.
As I walked then through the slides, I began to realize that I was losing railroaders from the audience. The goal was to get them to sign USW union cards so we could get them under the ISG master. But they were leaving before I got to that part. Tom had been in and out of the room repeatedly and I couldn’t seem to get his attention to start collecting the cards. I pushed through the last couple of slides and signed up the couple remaining workers left. I saw Tom standing outside and went out to tell him we probably would have to come back the next morning to get the rest of the cards signed. But he handed me a stack of signed cards for each of the railroaders that had left.
Confused, I asked him how he got those. It’s simple he said. “I just tapped them on the shoulder while you were talking on, got them outside, and I told them if they didn’t want to hear any more of your bullshit, all they had to do was sign a card and they could go home.” “Wasn’t a single one of them said no”, he assured me.
We both busted out laughing. Those were the easiest cards I ever got signed in the organizing drives I’ve been involved in. And all it took was a young street kid who understood that if you put a man between a union meeting and his sleep time, you could get him in a joining kind of mood. The lesson was not to take yourself too seriously, the facts don’t always drive the decision, and you can learn a whole lot when you least expect to.
Copyright 2015, Ike Gittlen