This year, UE’s ranks swelled to include drivers in both The Hawkeye and Volunteer States. Drivers in Chattanooga and Etowah Tennessee gathered cards to join UE Local 977; while drivers in Fort Dodge, Waterloo, Mason City, and Ottumwa joined UE Local 1177. The UE contract contains a ‘card check’ provision that allows an area not in the contract to join, if the union can show at least 50% +1 of the drivers have signed cards.
“Because I’m a Texan, I cannot stand to see people treated unjustly!” says Tony Smith, steward and organizer in Chattanooga, TN with UE Local 977.
In early February, Hallcon started managing the drivers in Smith’s yard. Soon it was clear to the drivers that their new bosses were not upholding their pledges regarding pay rates or seniority. “All the promises they made were lies,” Smith declares. He and his coworkers concluded they needed union representation to solve the problems in their workplace.
A coworker recommended UE, and Smith began the process of signing up members in his yard to join the union. Following the card collection, Smith and the Chattanooga drivers became included under the hard-fought UE rail crew driver’s contract at Hallcon. As Smith describes it, “A contract is a hammer.” When the contract is violated, the union has to fight back on behalf of workers.
While they experienced some pushback, Smith and his coworkers were ultimately successful with an effective pitch for union affiliation. For paying their dues, workers get an instant raise, another increase in their pay with shift differentials, and the protection of just cause termination. With the union’s contract to defend you, the employer is required to immediately pay you more and they can no longer fire you for no good reason.
Before becoming a driver, Smith was a business owner. Like countless others around the world, he had his business destroyed during the COVID-19 pandemic, throwing his life into chaos. “To keep the wolf away from the door,” he started driving rail crews with RCx (a competitor of Hallcon’s), and suspects he contracted COVID while on the job. He was hospitalized for over 40 days, and has still not recovered to his full physical health. Despite these difficulties, he helped organize his own yard followed by Etowah to join Local 977.
Smith recalls, “My grandfather told me the most important people for your business are not the customers, they’re the employees.” Through collective action, UE locals can force Hallcon and other corporations to live up to this truth.
Meanwhile, even more drivers got organized in Iowa. Erin Lynn Frimpong, UE Local 1177 District 2 Chief Steward out of Galesburg, IL, worked “hand in hand” with Local 1177 Executive Board member and steward Victoria Williams to sign up the yards in Fort Dodge, Waterloo, Mason City, and Ottumwa. Their approach to organizing new drivers focuses on the better wages and benefits of union membership. “You get a pay raise, PTO, and guarantees for your breaks and rest periods.” says Frimpong. Iowa, like Tennessee, is a “right to work” (for less) state; meaning the just cause clause that comes with the union contract can make a world of difference.
“Workers who don’t have a union are left out to hang.” Frimpong explains, “They don’t have anyone to fight for them, to protect their jobs and get better working conditions.” She and Willaims are also helping to lead efforts to organize the starter desk employees at the Galesburg yard. Organizing to bring in more workers in more yards is crucial for the stability of the national workforce.
In turn, drivers already in the union benefit from having more members join. With more workers in the struggle, we are even stronger for the next contract fight. “Drivers want safer vans and better pay,” Frimpong shares a familiar phrase for Hallcon drivers from coast to coast.
Smith also has his sights set on continuing to build a bigger, stronger union. “We want to organize and lock up the state of Tennessee, so then Hallcon has to deal with us as a block, and then we have more power.” This fortified base of fighting workers will give the drivers more strength to address safety issues and unequal pay at the bargaining table in 2026.