July 22, 2004

SPRINGFIELD (July 22)—A two-year fight for an enforceable safe-walkway standard for railroad yards came to a successful conclusion today as Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law legislation originally proposed by the UTU.

The bill, known as H.B. 5340, mandates that within 90 days the Illinois commerce Commission must adopt a rule that—at a minimum—will require rail carriers to ensure that walkways in areas where employees regularly perform work on the ground are reasonably smooth, level and free of obstructions.

The governor’s signature came after the bill passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly by unanimous votes. The House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 117-0 April 1 and the Senate followed with a 55-0 vote May 17.

But the overwhelming support that crowned the measure’s victory in the General Assembly masked a long and difficult fight to get an enforceable walkway safety standard.

“We faced road block after road block over the past two years,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “But we never gave up. For each hurdle that presented itself, we simply found a way over or around it. What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

The old story: carrier arrogance leads to regulation

Szabo said UTU became aware of the need for a safe-walkway standard during a union inspection of a railroad yard in East St. Louis in early 2002.

“I noticed that the ballast in the switching areas was very large and irregular, and that the footing was unstable,” he said. “But when I asked the superintendent’s cooperation in replacing it with walking ballast, he said, ‘There’s no enforceable regulation. I don’t have to do anything.’ He then ignored my letters again requesting he correct the unsafe condition.”

Focused on the need for a rule on walkway safety, Szabo began discussions in late 2002 with the industry on mutually acceptable language for a walkway-safety standard. However, when Norfolk Southern and Canadian National refused to accept language agreed to by Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and CSX Corp., Szabo filed a petition with the Commerce Commission calling for it to adopt a rule.

“It was so disappointing to learn that two of the carriers would not join the agreement,” Szabo said. “All we had asked for was a means to enforce the industry’s own internal standards for walkway ballast size. Our language was based on language used in legislation already in effect in many other states. It was just common sense. Unfortunately, NS and CN—especially NS—failed to see the value of a partnership.”

The long trek to success

Norfolk Southern’s intransigence forced the UTU into what turned into an 18-month see-saw battled to get a walkway-safety rule adopted.

On April 22, 2003, Illinois Commerce Commission Administrative Law Judge June Tate held an informal hearing on the UTU’s Formal Petition for a walkway standard, and at her urging the first union/railroad workshop on the issue was held later that day. As Norfolk Southern’s resistance stiffened, Judge Tate ordered the parties to continue meeting in an effort to arrive at mutually acceptable language.

The talks dragged out as the summer of 2003 progressed, with NS rejecting the union’s proposed language even as UP and BNSF agreed to it in a Joint Petition of Support they filed with the Commission July 11 of that year. Later, CSX agreed to the proposed standard.

But it was not enough. The UTU engaged Washington labor attorney Larry Mann to argue its position, but in January of this year Judge Tate issued an unfavorable recommendation. Later, the Commission’s staff issued a brief in support of the UTU’s position, but the Commission itself remained unmoved.

“Judge Tate’s rejection of our Petition was very disappointing, but we could not accept it as a final defeat,” Szabo said. “The issue was simply too important, the stakes too high. We knew we had to fine-tune our strategy and re-focus on our goal.”

Despite a warning, death strikes in Kankakee

The stakes proved high indeed. Five days after Judge Tate rejected the union’s Petition, UTU member Steve Hall of Local#1003 was fatally injured January 14 while performing a switching maneuver in Norfolk Southern’s yard in Kankakee at a location where the UTU had previously advised the carrier of unsafe conditions.

“Steve Hall’s death was the absolute low point of our campaign to rid the state’s rail yards of walkway hazards,” Szabo said. “We felt we had failed him. We had to redouble our effort.”

The effort took on further urgency when NS officials confiscated photos of the accident site taken by Local 1003 Local Chairman Aaron Combs. Mann asked Judge Tate to issue a subpoena to have the photos returned. “This fight is a long way from over,” Szabo told “Hot Topics,” charging NS management with operating a “culture of concealment.” The rail carrier even filed a brief asking Judge Tate to disregard the death of Steve Hall in judging the need for a walkway-safety rule.

There oughta be a law!

Realizing the Commission just wasn’t “getting it” about walkway safety, the UTU decided to switch from an administrative to a legislative strategy. When a bill to consolidate the rail-safety duties of the Commission into the Illinois Department of Transportation was in preparation, the UTU successfully lobbied to insert language mandating the Commission to adopt a walkway-safety rule.

The bill to consolidate the Commission’s safety duties into IDOT eventually was held short of a vote, but the walkway-safety provision was rescued through a quick parliamentary maneuver by State Rep. Eddie Washington (D-North Chicago), the only UTU member serving in the legislature. Washington introduced H.B. 5340, a separate bill mandating the Commerce Commission to promulgate and enforce a walkway-safety rule. The measure passed the House 117-0 April 1. Then under the sponsorship of Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Kankakee), it went on to pass the Senate 55-0 May 17. With today’s signature by the governor it becomes law.

A long walk to walkway safety

“The campaign for a walkway-safety rule was long and tough, but it proves the resilience and persistence of the union’s efforts, especially where membership involvement is concerned,” Szabo said. “The tenacity of Assistant Legislative Director John Burner and Alternate Director Robert Guy provided the final push. Our victory today was worth all the effort, and all the disappointments, and all the petty resistance we encountered.”

Szabo pointed out, however, that while passage of H.B. 5340 is a clear victory, it is not the final result of the union’s efforts. The Commission must now promulgate its new rule and must work out a timeline in which the state’s rail carriers comply with the new standards. All yards cannot be made safe overnight.

“Obviously, the transition to safe walkways statewide will take some time,” Szabo said. “What’s important is that for the first time, UTU members will have both a regulatory mechanism to make safe walkways a reality and an enforcement mechanism to make sure the rail carriers will pay a price if they fail to keep their walkways in a safe condition. H.B. 5340 represents a real advance in our working conditions.

“I only regret that H.B. 5340 came too late for Steve Hall,” Szabo said. “He will live in our memories, and his sacrifice will live in the language of this new law.”