October 1, 2008

WASHINGTON (Oct. 1)—After a year of struggle and sometimes intense parliamentary maneuvering, the U.S. Senate passed a far-reaching package of railroad-safety legislation that includes prohibiting rail carriers from delaying, denying or interfering with the medical treatment of injured employees.

In an especially satisfying victory for UTU members in Illinois, H.R. 2095 used the language drafted by the UTU Illinois Legislative Board and passed by the Illinois General Assembly as the Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act of 2005 before a court overturned it in January 2007.

After the rail carriers filed suit against the State of Illinois and a U.S. District Court decision overturning the Illinois Act, the UTU Illinois Legislative Board took its campaign to the federal level. UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo reached out to U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville) to have the language of the Illinois bill included in a new federal railroad-safety bill being drafted by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.).

As a Senate companion bill was being drafted by Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Szabo asked U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin to insert similar language.

“We really owe a debt of gratitude to Congressman Costello and Senator Durbin,” Szabo said. “Because the state could not act on the issue of carrier interference with injured employees’ medical treatment, we literally had to make a federal case out of it. Now every railroad employee in the nation will have the same right to prompt medical treatment that we originally sought for our own people in Illinois.

“Our members made this happen with their phone outreach to the Illinois Legislature back in 2005,” he said. “It’s a fine example of labor-union activism and shows how the process works. Had we not passed our bill in Illinois and the carriers moved to overturn our law, rail workers nationwide wouldn’t have this protection today.”

H.R. 2095, which combined the Federal Rail Safety Bill with Amtrak Reauthorization, passed the Senate by a vote of 74-24, enough to overcome a presidential veto. The measure earlier passed the House, also by a veto-proof majority. Early indications are that the president will sign the bill. The administration is known to oppose several of the measure’s provisions, especially an increased budget for Amtrak.

H.R. 2095 also creates the first federal/state matching fund for rail improvements, allowing states to partner with the federal government in financing rail infrastructure just as they do in building highways and airports.

“After eight years we’ve finally passed the reauthorization of Amtrak,” declared a jubilant U.S. Sen. Durbin. “This bill makes a dramatic investment in Amtrak’s future.”

Illinois’ junior U.S. senator, Barack Obama, joined Durbin in voting for the bill. Obama’s opponent in the presidential race, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), voted against it, an act which Szabo said “tells us a lot about how the UTU arrives at its political endorsements.”

Szabo hailed the passage of H.R. 2095 as a “huge win for the nation, for the state of Illinois and for the UTU and particularly praised Sen. Durbin for its passage.

“While HR 2095 easily passed the House, it was really held up in the Senate,” he said. The staff of Senator Durbin was very influential in navigating it through the parliamentary maneuvers and ensuring our Medical Treatment language was in there. Sen. Durbin also ensured our State Amtrak service benefited.

“Amtrak will have the money to begin expanding its fleet so it can carry the millions of additional travelers who have been switching to rail,” Szabo said. “The state of Illinois will qualify for about $75 million in additional capital funds it can use to build track and signals to handle the additional passenger-train traffic on schedule. Both of those breakthroughs mean more railroad jobs.

“While I’m pleased with the many benefits for rail workers nationwide, I’m particularly thrilled with Illinois’ role,” Szabo said. “Our membership involvement, our Illinois General Assembly and our Illinois congressional leaders all were instrumental in making this victory a reality.”