May 3, 2007

CHICAGO (May 3)—“Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”

Maybe the railroad industry should have remembered that wise old French saying before it asked a federal judge last year to overturn the Illinois Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act of 2005.

The industry thought it had gotten its wish January 18. That’s when the U.S. District Court in Springfield ruled that only the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has the power to regulate the area of employee injury treatment. In legal terms, federal law “pre-empted” the Illinois Act.

Now the rail industry’s legal victory may be short-lived. The new Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act introduced yesterday by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) includes language giving the FRA all the same enforcement powers – nationwide – that the January court ruling took away from the Illinois Commerce Commission.

“The language in Chairman Oberstar’s bill essentially came right out of the Illinois act,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It’s as if the ghost of the Illinois Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act climbed out of its grave and staggered up Capitol Hill to haunt the railroads. They couldn’t kill it. Now it’s loose and lurking.”

Szabo said the re-emergence of the overturned Illinois law in new federal legislation was not a coincidence. He said as soon as the court ruled federal law pre-empted state law on employees’ medical treatment, key members of the Illinois General Assembly reached out to the Illinois delegation in Congress for new federal legislation that would do the same thing as the Illinois Act. And they enclosed the Illinois language as a model.

“State Sen. Bill Haine [D-Alton] was a leader on this and he contacted his congressman, Jerry Costello [D-Belleville] and asked for a federal version of the Illinois bill,” Szabo said. Costello serves on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chaired by Oberstar.

Szabo said the appeal for alternative federal legislation came so promptly because members of the General Assembly were “furious” with the railroads for reneging on what the legislators had believed were good-faith negotiations to arrive at mutually acceptable language. Haine, who had sponsored the bill in the State Senate, said he felt he had been “sandbagged.” Other legislators said they felt betrayed and made similar calls.

Szabo said the UTU Illinois Legislative Board “couldn’t be more pleased” to see that Cong. Oberstar has introduced legislation restoring all of the sanctions and powers of the invalidated Illinois Act at the federal level.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no more moral issue than the right of working people to have prompt and unmediated access to medical treatment when they are injured in the workplace,” he said. “When H.R. 2095 becomes law, not only will railroad workers in Illinois get all of the protection and all the rights that we’ve worked so hard to secure for them, but so will workers in all of the other 48 states that have railroads.”

Szabo said all of rail labor is asking its members to reach out to their congressmen and ask them to “co-sponsor” H.R. 2095. While it is always hard to handicap a bill’s chances, he said, as the Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Cong. Oberstar likely to attract strong support for his bill.

“In addition to severe penalties for delaying, denying or interfering with employees’ medical treatment, H.R. 2095 also addresses the critical issues of crew fatigue and crew training and qualifications,” he said. “Whenever I meet with union members those are the three issues I hear about the most. This is federal legislation that is long overdue.

“What a difference a new Congress makes.”