February 27, 2008

SPRINGFIELD (Feb. 27)—The UTU Illinois Legislative Board wound up its Quadrennial Organizational Meeting on Wednesday after a Tuesday night reception attended by the state’s top legislators. State Senate leaders were on hand to read a Proclamation passed by the Senate honoring retired Assistant Legislative Director John Burner for his 11 ½ years of union service.

“It was genuinely heartwarming to hear the Senate’s praise for John,” said State Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo “and to see the interaction at our Reception between the UTU Local Legislative Representatives and their elected officials.”

Szabo said the size and makeup of the turnout indicated that “our union is seen in Springfield as a reliable and authoritative source of information on railroad issues.

“In a word, we are trusted,” Szabo said.

A sampling of some of the guests attending the reception included Amtrak Board Nominee Thomas Carper, the former mayor of Macomb and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s regional director for Western Illinois; House Speaker Michael J. Madigan; Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson; House Railroad Committee Chairwoman Elaine Nekritz and the Committee’s Minority Spokesman, Donald Moffitt; House Transit Committee Chairwoman Julie Hamos and Committee Minority Spokesman Sidney H, Mathias; House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Hoffman and Committee Minority Spokesman Ronald A. Wait; and State Sen. Linda Holmes, vice chair of the Labor Committee.

“That turnout is a reflection of the respect in which the UTU is held in Springfield, and that respect has a lot to do with professionalism of the UTU people who interact with government,” Szabo said.

Now that professionalism is being upgraded, he said. Szabo explained that the local legislative reps spent all day Tuesday in a training-and-education seminar run by Prof. Helena Worthen from the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

“Prof. Worthen was brought in to upgrade our skills in writing and documentation so our union can become more effective in documenting the issues we find in the workplace,” Szabo said, pointing out that “holding the railroads accountable for the safety of our members in the workplace is the core mission of the UTU Illinois Legislative Board.”

The legislative reps got additional training Wednesday from officials of the Federal Railroad Administration, who updated the union on recent changes in FRA operating and mechanical rules. Those updates, Szabo said, will further improve the accuracy of the complaints that LRs ask the Illinois Legislative Board to file with safety-enforcement agencies.

“A key focus for me and Assistant Director Bob Guy over the next four years is to intensify our reporting of unsafe incidents to regulatory agencies, pass more laws and develop additional regulations to protect our members in the workplace,” he said.

“But we are powerless without good write-ups from the rank and file. The saddest lesson I’ve learned is that the truth is irrelevant – all that counts is what you can prove with solid documentation.

“Passing laws is all about the relationships between our LR’s and lawmakers and – even more important – the ability of our local officers and members to document workplace violations accurately when they write them up,” Szabo said.

Szabo said the education and training the reps received even reached back into Illinois labor history. After their Monday-evening banquet, the LRs heard Northern Illinois University Labor Prof. Rosemary Feuerer’s presentation on the legendary labor leader Mother Jones and her relationship to the 1898 “Battle of Virden,” when eight miners were killed by company goons for trying to organize the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. mine 20 miles south of Springfield.

“The professor sold 31 copies of her DVD after the presentation,” Szabo said. “Our people are really starting to take pride in being part of the heroic tradition of organized labor. It puts a little ‘fire in the belly’.”

Szabo said pride and professionalism will continue to inspire the union’s efforts as it take on more difficult challenges during his next term.

“The huge bi-partisan turnout at the reception suggests our program is working and that the spirit of John Burner continues to prevail even after his retirement,” Szabo said: “More and more state legislators – on both sides of the aisle – admire and trust the UTU. They don’t see us as a partisan cause. They see our ideas and programs as common-sense solutions to the issues that affect people who work on the railroad.”