July 28, 2008

With only 150 members, UTU Local No. 1525 in Carbondale is far from the biggest local in Illinois.

But you’d never know if from its members’ monthly contributions to UTU-PAC. In the last six months their totals have risen 30%.

“That’s the fastest-growing UTU-PAC contribution rate in the state of Illinois,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

What accounts for that sudden stellar growth?

It’s Ken Niebur, a 59-year old Amtrak conductor who’s never held a union position and decided on his own to be a UTU-PAC fund-raiser.

“Ken gets it,” Szabo said. “Nobody had to tell him to go out and organize a UTU-PAC fund-raising drive. He decided to do it himself when he saw how important the Illinois General Assembly and the U.S. Congress are to making sure railroad workers have the right kind of wages, benefits and job security.”

Niebur told “Hot Topics” he started his campaign in January.

“My sales pitch is: If we don’t elect candidates who will protect our interests, who will protect us?” he said.

It appears to be a convincing line of reasoning. As soon as Niebur started using it, UTU-PAC contributions from Local 1525 started growing.

“I talk to the men about the backgrounds of the candidates,” he said. “I tell them: Look at the records of these candidates. The UTU analyzes their voting records and endorses the ones who protect our interests. Political affiliation is irrelevant–all that matters is their voting records. Go on line and look at who the UTU has endorsed and vote for those candidates.”

After showing a member how certain legislators can be relied on to protect member interests – such as the recent doubling of state-sponsored Amtrak service in Illinois – Niebur then secures the member’s commitment that he will register for early voting and actually vote for the approved candidates.

“How are we going to get what we need if we don’t even vote for the people who are going to help us?” he said. “I vote, I vote every time, and when I vote I know who I’m voting for and what his record is. So I tell the members, ‘Would you like to go another seven years without a contract? Then vote for legislators who will make sure we get one.’”

Niebur concludes his “sales pitch” by urging each member to sign up to donate a fixed monthly amount to UTU-PAC.

Reaching all the members of Local No.1525 is not easy. While headquartered in Carbondale, the local represents all Amtrak train-service employees operating out of the Chicago Hub to downstate Illinois. That includes not only crews on the state-supported trains connecting Chicago with Carbondale, St. Louis and Quincy, but also Amtrak’s California Zephyr between Chicago and Kansas City.

So Niebur, a set-up conductor in Chicago-St. Louis service, buttonholes fellow members whenever he can at the one point common to all members, Chicago Union Station, and talks to others at his layover point in St. Louis.

One reason Niebur is so successful in persuading his fellow members to contribute to UTU-PAC is that he doesn’t just talk politics with them. He genuinely cares about their work.

“I always ask the other guys, ‘What was your train like today? What kinds of problems did you have?’” he says.

Niebur says he’s concerned about the employees because so many of them are new—Amtrak had to staff up quickly when Illinois doubled its budget for Amtrak service in 2006—and because their work loads have increased drastically since train travel became more popular.

Szabo said Niebur most likely “got it” about the connection between politics and job security because politics had such a powerful impact on his own job in Amtrak’s Chicago Hub service.

“When the Illinois General Assembly doubled IDOT’s Amtrak budget from $12 million to $24 million a year in 2006, the number of daily state-sponsored round trips jumped from three to seven and 30 new employees had to be hired,” Szabo said.

“That ramp-up in service advanced Kenny up the seniority roster and got him set up as a conductor with a regular run,” he said. “He immediately saw the connection between political activity and job security. Now he’s sharing that insight with his fellow members, and they’ve responded with an amazing outpouring of support for the legislators who did the job. That’s exactly the way member activism is supposed to work.”

But Szabo said the stakes are “just as big and maybe bigger” for members who work in freight service.

“The Rail Employees Medical Treatment Act, The Safe Walkways Act, the Contract Carrier Act that made sure our crew vans would be safe—all that came about in Illinois because the union was able to elect candidates to the General Assembly who cared about workplace safety,” he said.

“Look at how many issues are still out there, particularly at the federal level,” Szabo said. “The Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act, or the future of Railroad Retirement. There are appointments to the National Mediation Board, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Department of Labor. How is the Family Medical Leave Act going to be interpreted, or our contract, or rail safety regulations? Will they benefit the carriers or protect rail workers?

“And don’t forget the big one: one-man crews. We have to have the right officials elected to office to deal with these challenges. That’s what Ken Niebur’s fund drive is all about. There is nothing more powerful that an individual member understanding what is at stake and the choosing to make a difference. Our union needs dozens more just like him.”