Workers stand up to union busting at Lakeville rail company

Corey Plath, president of UTU Local 911, representing workers at Progressive Rail, talks to workers on the informational picket line.

Corey Plath, president of UTU Local 911, representing workers at Progressive Rail, talks to workers on the informational picket line.

Progressive Rail is harassing, intimidating and firing its workers in an attempt to supplant their union, leaders and members of the United Transportation Union said during informational picketing outside the company this morning.

Eight workers at the Lakeville-based railway have been fired or harassed into resignation since February 2012, when a union contract covering 12 employees went into effect at company.

Their replacements, fired workers say, have been hand picked by management to support a company-backed “sham union” over the UTU in an upcoming decertification election.

Phil Qualy, UTU state legislative director, said enough union supporters remain eligible to vote down the decertification drive. The informational picket, which drew more than 40 UTU members from across the state, was designed to show Progressive Rail workers their union is behind them.

“We show up and support our guys,” Qualy said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 1,000 members or it’s one member, we’re going to stand as the UTU for our brothers and sisters.”

Union supporters targeted

Stewart Howe (left) and Mike Bargmann are appealing Progressive Rail's grounds for firing them last year.

Stewart Howe (left) and Mike Bargmann are appealing Progressive Rail’s grounds for firing them last year.

In addition to challenging the decertification drive, the union has appealed the firings of Progressive Rail workers like Stewart Howe and Mike Bargmann, who say they were targeted by management because of their support for the UTU.

Howe, a locomotive engineer active in efforts to organize a union at Progressive Rail three years ago, was fired for exceeding the maximum speed on a locomotive – even though the conductor with him during the alleged incident received no disciplinary action at all.

Bargmann, a conductor fired for “insubordination that never occurred,” wasn’t with the company when workers voted 11-1 in favor of joining UTU in 2009. Still, he refused to join the decertification drive – and claims he lost his job as a result.

“About a month before (being fired), I was asked by a fellow conductor to sign a sheet of paper saying that I wanted the UTU out of here,” Bargmann said. “I didn’t want to sign it because I know the UTU is a good thing to have in place here.

“Without the UTU, the working conditions and pay would be atrocious.”

Indeed, some UTU members at Progressive Rail gained a $14,000 raise in one year after implementation of the collective bargaining agreement. UTU members also gained access to representation during disputes with the company over safety and working conditions.

Workers’ rights don’t depend on railroad size

Several so-called “short-line” railroads like Progressive Rail have taken over operations from large carriers like Canadian Pacific in recent decades. Unions say the “short-lines” are designed to avoid union contracts and lower wage and benefits for rail workers.

But Phil Craig, a member of the UTU Executive Board who traveled from Mankato to attend the Progressive Rail picket, said workers at railroads big and small deserve the right to form unions freely, without intimidation or harassment from their employers.

“We want these guys to understand everybody’s standing behind them,” Craig said. “They’ve got 190,000 brothers and sisters that are supporting them to maintain the UTU on this property.”

The UTU is a division of SMART (Sheet Metal Air, Rail Transit) union, which has 190,000 members nationwide, including 1,200 in Minnesota.

Progressive Rail’s decertification vote is scheduled to begin by mail Jan. 29, Qualy said.

The union is planning to stage another informational picket, with support from the broader labor community, the same day.

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