August 16, 2001
No name in the history of the American rail labor movement stands taller than that of Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926). His rapid rise to the top of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, his decision in 1893 to organize the all-crafts American Railway Union, and his leadership of the nationwide rail strike of 1893-94 made him a villain in the eyes of corporate management and a hero to the nation’s growing labor movement.
Since Debs’s death in 1926, successive generations of railroaders have kept his spirit alive by holding an annual awards banquet in his home town of Terre Haute, Ind. This year’s Eugene V. Debs Award will be presented November 3 to a modern legend of railroad labor, UTU Past President Al Chesser.
“I can think of no one more suited to receive this award than Al Chesser, and I would encourage all of you who can fit this into your schedule to attend this event,” said UTU International President Byron A. Boyd, Jr.
To make attendance as easy as possible, a block of rooms has been set aside for UTU members at the Terre Haute Holiday Inn at the rate of $79 per night, plus tax. A cocktail reception for Brother Chesser will be held at 6 p.m., and the awards dinner will follow at 7 p.m. Both events will be held in the Heritage Ballroom at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. The site is only two blocks from Debs’s home, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.
“I hope every Illinois UTU member who is not working on November 3 will come out to honor Al Chesser,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Al is one of my heroes. He’s 87 years old, and he could be enjoying a comfortable retirement, but he still takes an active role in strengthening our union. And when I say ‘active’ I don’t mean he just writes letters to the editor. He travels to the regional meetings and serves as a coach in training sessions for the younger members who have just been elected to union offices. He still belts out a tremendous stump speech. I sometimes tell myself, ‘I sure hope I can still be that sharp when I’m 87.’ Then I correct myself and think, ‘Hell, I wish I was that sharp now!'”
A native of Missouri, Brother Chesser hired out as a brakeman on the Santa Fe Railway in 1941 at Wellington, Kans. In July of the same year he transferred to the carrier’s Plains Division in Amarillo, Tex., and in 1945 he began his union career as Secretary-Treasurer of Lodge 608 in one of the UTU’s predecessor unions, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. He rose to become the BRT’s Legislative Director for the state of Texas, then went on to the post of National Legislative Director in Washington, D.C. When the BRT became part of the new UTU in 1969, he became the National Legislative Director for the new union and went on to serve as its International President from 1971 to 1979.
During his Washington days Brother Chesser set an all-time record for legislative achievement by successfully lobbying for six major pieces of legislation.
“Most national legislative directors would be considered stars if they got one important bill passed during their tenure,” Szabo said. “Getting two bills passed during your career is like hitting a grand-slam home run. But Al Chesser was the major force in the development and passage of six vital pieces of railroad legislation: the creation of Amtrak in 1970; the creation of Conrail in 1973; the Rail Safety Act of 1970, C-1 protection for Amtrak employees; the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976; and the amendments to the 1926 Railway Labor Act that cut the maximum hours of service for train crews from 16 hours per day to 12.
“Al Chesser was known to presidents and cabinet members, and they trusted him,” Szabo said. “He was consulted regularly by presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. In the mid-70s when inflation became a terrible problem, he was invited by President Nixon to participate in the White House Summit on Wages and Prices. He was a guest on Air Force One with LBJ, but even though he mingled with the mighty, he never lost the common touch. He will turn up at a regional union meeting today and help the members address their problems just the same as if he were still out there bossing a freight train over their division.”
Szabo said Chesser also played a major role in the railroad industry’s campaign during the late 1970s to stop the planning of a coal-slurry pipeline from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to major coal-consuming utilities in the Midwest. The establishment of rail transportation as the sole mass mover of Powder River coal created a booming new market for the U.S. rail industry and has even been credited with reviving the industry, particularly in the critical period prior to deregulation in 1980.
“That was a great example of Al Chesser’s ability to position his union correctly on any issue,” Szabo said. “He had a keen sense of when it was time to oppose the railroad industry and when it was more expedient for the unions to ally themselves with the industry. Power River coal was one of those opportunities where the interests of the industry and those of labor converged. He joined the railroads in fighting the pipeline, and the result speaks for itself: Dozens and dozens of coal trains each day and thousands of new jobs for railroader crews, shop and track forces, and the men and women who build new railcars and locomotives. Al Chesser is a true visionary.”
Members who wish to honor Brother Chesser can order their banquet tickets at $25 each from the Debs Foundation, P.O. Box 843, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Please indicate choice of chicken or fish entree and number of tickets desired. Hotel reservations should be made directly with the Terre Haute Holiday Inn by calling (812) 232-6081. Remember to identify yourself as a member of the United Transportation Union so you can qualify for the group rate. The hotel is located on U.S. 41 south of I-70.
For additional information, contact Charles King at (812) 237-3443, or Noel Beasley at either (888) 775-8833 or (312) 783-6212.