December 14, 2008

SPRINGFIELD (Dec. 14)—Rail employees in Illinois secured long-overdue new legal protections today when Senate Bill 620 amending the Illinois Railroad Police Act became state law.

Under legislation signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the private police forces employed by railroads will now be subject for the first time to independent, objective oversight by state government.

That means allegations of misuse of railroad police powers now can be investigated by an independent third party, not solely by the rail carrier enjoying the special powers.

“We now have a degree of parity in the way the law treats private railroad police officers and municipal police officers who work for the public,” said UTU Assistant Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

Railroads are the only private for-profit corporations in the U.S. to which government has delegated its police powers. Railroad police have all the same powers as civil police, including the right to arrest and interrogate suspects. Yet historically, when carriers have been accused of abusing their police powers, the charges have been investigated by the railroads themselves.

“That’s now going to change in the state of Illinois,” Guy said. “State statute now restricts when and how rail police may use their powers against employees and requires an internal appeal process. But most important, if a party is aggrieved by the carrier’s internal findings, state government will investigate, report and, if appropriate, sanction the carrier’s behavior.”

Effective June 1, 2009, the Illinois State Police will have the authority to review the railroad’s investigation and decision.

“If the State Police find fault with the railroad’s investigation, they can open their own investigation and turn their findings over to the Illinois Commerce Commission [ICC] for enforcement,” Guy said. “After Hearing, the ICC will have the power to issue fines, a cease-and-desist order, or other sanctions.”

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said the reason it fell to rail labor to spearhead the movement for railroad police reform was that railroad employees themselves have often been the objects of “creative use” of railroad police powers outside the realm of traditional police duties.

“In October 2007, CN used its police powers to interfere with the activities of the UTU Local Chairman in Decatur—even though he was communicating with his members on a public city street,” Szabo said. “It was the second time that month that CN used or threatened to use its police powers to interfere with the union’s business.

“It is our belief in the Decatur case – and the statements of independent witnesses would suggest – that the CN police were not using their powers to enforce the law, but were using their powers to enforce management policy, particularly an anti-labor policy,” he said.

“But when we asked CN to investigate they came back with what appeared to be a self-serving finding and we were left with no independent authority to appeal to,” Szabo said. “There was no objective way to ascertain the truth.”

Guy pointed out that in legislation passed two years ago the UTU was able to limit railroad police interrogation of employees to four specific areas: situations in which there is reason to believe criminal conduct occurred, response to an employee accident, situations in which there is reason to believe that interviewing an employee may prevent workplace violence, and situations where there is a legitimate concern for the personal safety of one or more employees.

“But there were no means to ensure these policies and guidelines were adhered to,” Guy said. “We needed an independent oversight and enforcement process.”

Szabo praised Guy and the Illinois AFL-CIO for navigating the legislation through the Illinois General Assembly.

“Bob did a tremendous job working this bill through a very difficult session,” he said. “But with the help of the Illinois AFL-CIO and Chicago Federation of Labor, as well as the BLE and BMWE, this was one of the only bills passed by labor this year.”

Szabo said a good deal of credit for SB 620’s success belongs to the two General Assembly members who introduced it in their respective chambers—State Rep. Tom Holbrook (D-Belleville) and State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton).

“Because of their individual backgrounds, these two legislators brought an extra measure of credibility to the issue of railroad-police reform,” Szabo said, noting that Holbrook is a former UTU member and former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad switchman while Haine spent 14 years as Madison County state’s attorney.

“Tom and Bill stood right at the intersection of railroading and law enforcement,” he said. “Both were knowledgeable and articulate when it came to sorting out the issues and framing them for their colleagues. Between credible friends in the legislature and our allies in organized labor, everybody did a terrific job.”