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September 2013

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Member Brings Light to a Darkened Yard

When Curt Fernandez arrived for his first day repairing diesel locomotives for Canadian National Railways, he expected it to be dirty, difficult work.

Fernandez, a member of Proctor, Minn., Local 366, had been laid off for a few months and he said he was eager to get to work on the Duluth-Mesabi and Iron Range railway lines in early 2010. He had worked for almost a year at the ore docks where freight trains dump their cargo of pellets made of clay and iron into the holds of lake freighters bound for the steel mills outside Chicago. He thought he knew something about dirty and difficult work.

But he was unprepared for what he saw in the repair building. Darkness. A 50,000-square-foot room lit by about 300 widely spaced lights that were too dim to break through the gloom and yet so harsh they made seeing in the darkness somehow harder.

"There was an absolutely soul-sucking feeling, even on the brightest day and, as bad and dim as it was, the light was orange," Fernandez said.

Everyone in the building used head lamps attached to their hard hats or flashlights brought from home and nearly all of the veteran machinists, boilermakers, electricians and car men wore thick-lensed glasses to counter the damage of years in the orange haze. Color wiring diagrams were unreadable. Repair jobs inside the giant locomotives were often hidden in darkness or glare.

"The attitude in that place was the worst. Everyone was mad and had these thick glasses on. It was a caustic environment," Fernandez said.

For 10 months Fernandez repaired locomotives. He was eventually made the sole facilities maintenance electrician for almost 35 buildings, four rail yards and one bridge owned by DMIR line. Despite the breadth of his responsibilities, he says he had one overriding goal in the new job: replace the lighting in the Proctor diesel yard.

"It was like a quest for me," he said. "There were a couple dozen people in there and I just wanted to make their lives better."

He spoke to his supervisor about how better lighting would increase productivity, reduce accidents and improve morale, but he says his first requests met with near complete indifference. So he made sure that whenever something needed work in the repair shop, he'd drop everything else to finish the job.

"I'd jump right on it, because I was after a favor. I wanted him to trust me," Fernandez said of the shop supervisor.

He finally got his chance five months after his first request, when the ventilation system at the yard office failed. Fernandez said he came up with a way to repair instead of replace it, which would've cost thousands of dollars and require a contractor to be brought in.

"I got an 'attaboy' and I traded it in for the lights. I basically said, 'The lights only cost a grand and I just saved you a bundle.' So he says, 'Yeah. OK,'" Fernandez said.

There were dozens of old orange lights in the building. Fernandez was given the go-ahead to replace only four. He wanted to place them where they would create the maximum interest and demand for more lights. He put them all above the workstation of one of the most senior machinists who had been vocally opposed to changing the lighting.

"I figured if I could win the most senior guy over, he would push the supervisor and convince the other guys this was an OK idea," Fernandez said. "Then this [veteran]… who used to be all crabby, he said to me, 'You know those lights aren't too bad.' I had cracked the ice."

By the time a new supervisor — a former machinist named Eddie Lopez — was appointed, workers were, if not clamoring for new lights, at least open to the idea. When Lopez called Fernandez in and asked him why the lighting was only part way done, Fernandez says he recounted the history of resistance he had faced. Fernandez said that Lopez listened to his story and then told him to "light it up."

"I was so thankful," Fernandez said. "He went out on a ledge to fulfill my dream."

Nevertheless, Fernandez took it slow and only ordered a few fixtures at a time.

"I was worried that some bean counter would get wind of it and wonder why we were not bidding the work out. I wanted it to be my work. No contractor would have thought of this, so why give them the work?" Fernandez said. "There used to be seven guys in facilities maintenance. Now it is me. I knew I was fighting for my job with this because I was proving that it's good to not contract everything out."

The last light went up in March, more than two years after the first four. Fernandez had installed more than 300 overhead lights, 50 lights angled out to illuminate the repair bays and more than 30 spotlights that illuminated the undercarriages of the locomotives.

Matt Jones, a journeyman locomotive electrician, said "it was an astronomical improvement. There were no more headlights or flashlights. You could actually see the work you were doing inside the locomotive."

Fernandez said after the lights at the workstation of one of the younger machinists were replaced, the man came up to him to thank him and say he hadn't really known how bad his eyes were getting until the lights were installed.

"When he said thank you, that was the chocolate cake and the frosting. I did something right," Fernandez said.


Curtis Fernandez of Proctor, Minn., Local 366, accomplished his mission to make a train car repair yard a brighter and safer work site for more than three dozen workers.


Curtis Fernandez