Smart’s Nigro: Long Island Railroad Struggle, Win Validates ‘Promise’ of SMWIA-UTU Merger


LAS VEGAS (PAI)–A mass June 21 rally for Long Island Rail Road workers at the Massapequa station, in the midst of a struggle with the line’s management, “validates” the merger several years ago between the Sheet Metal Workers and the United Transportation Union, says Ken Nigro, president of the combined union, SMART.


In a column written to introduce SMART’s first convention, from August 11-15 in Las Vegas, Nigro said he “saw the promise of the merger begin to fully take shape the moment I stepped off the train at Massapequa.”


The 3,000 people there were “sheet metal workers, sign workers, conductors and engineers standing shoulder to shoulder with one goal in mind: To ensure SMART members at the LIRR receive a fair shake.”


In his keynote address to the delegates, at the convention itself, Nigro acknowledged there are still differences within SMART about the merger.


“We’re going to fight some.  We’re going to bleed some.  But we’ll all bleed the same blood,” he said.  “I’m tired of saying ‘we’ and ‘them.’  I want to feel comfortable saying ‘us.’ So, get all your animosity out,” he told the 1,000 delegates.


And he also warned local leaders that they must be transparent and accountable to their members.


The merger came together when the LIRR workers won, Nigro said in his prior column.  A presidential emergency board, appointed under the Railway Labor Act, recommended a 6-year contract with 17.9 percent in compounded wage hikes for the LIRR workers.  But the board also ordered them to start paying health insurance premiums that reduced the hikes to 2.5 percent yearly.  It rejected management’s pension and work rule concession demands.


LIRR managers still didn’t yield, leading to the Massapequa rally – and management’s eventual capitulation.  “A strong union requires strong members,” Nigro said then, in a preview of theme of the convention of the renamed Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART).


“No matter what we do now or what our occupation is, we all want the same thing,” Nigro wrote.  “We want to have a job.  We want to be able to work hard and get a fair day’s pay for our hard work.  We want to be able to afford a house, a car (maybe two cars), and be able to send our kids to college if that’s what they choose to do.


“That’s what we want.  That’s the basic principle of the American dream.  No politician can take away our dream…unless we let them.  I say we don’t let them: We stand tall, we stand proud and we protect one another.”


Besides Nigro, North American Building Trades President Sean McGarvey urged delegates to take advantage of unique opportunities to build market share for unions and cooperating contractors as the U.S. continues to recover from the Great Recession.


Union membership growth and job opportunities “hinge upon how fully employers and government embrace a strategic approach based upon the value that unions deliver day-in and day-out,” McGarvey said.


“We provide the safest, most highly-skilled and productive workers found anywhere in the world,” he added.  But he told the SMART delegates they must still “provide assistance at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure job opportunities keep moving forward.


“We need a 21st-century model of labor relations that helps to ensure the success of our contractor partners which, in turn, helps to ensure on-time/on- budget results for our end-user customers,” he declared.


He also suggested U.S. construction unions should follow the example of their Canadian counterparts, who have focused organizing energy on the energy sector. That sector is booming due to development of new oil and gas reserves – and construction of plants and pipelines for them.


McGarvey also turned to politics, saying construction union members back politicians – of any party – who back them.  The building trades have been successful, despite the anti-union anti-worker tilt of the GOP House majority, in fending off Republican brainstorms, such as abolition of the Davis-Bacon Act.  The unions’ stands have drawn bipartisan support.


“Unions cannot put all of their eggs in one basket.  We will stand shoulder to shoulder with, and we will work in support of, any candidate for office who supports us and our issues.  We will not blindly support candidates from one political party just because other people think we should, or because that’s how it has always been,” McGarvey said.


Delegates re-elected Nigro to a new term as president and Joseph Sellers as Secretary-Treasurer.  At their earlier convention in San Diego, SMART Transportation Division delegates – the old UTU – elected John Previsch to that division’s presidency.


SMART delegates also vowed to build on recent organizing wins, by organizing outside metro areas, in suburbs and small towns.  The union will “use market recovery funds to target and expand into new opportunities,” instead of concentrating on existing contractors, delegates decided.