May 7, 2008

SPRINGFIELD (May 7)–By a vote of 91-17 the Illinois House approved an amendment to the Illinois Railroad Police Act that would give the Illinois State Police the authority to review and investigate charges of abuse of authority by railroad police against railroad employees or private citizens..

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said phone calls made by members to their state representatives were a principal reason for the overwhelming majority the vote attracted in the House.

“We asked our members to reach out to their reps, and they did,” Szabo said. “Rank-and-file UTU members sometimes don’t know their own strength, but they have real muscle when they engage in the legislative process.”

The bill now moves to the Illinois Senate for approval.

House Bill 5159, supported by the Illinois AFL-CIO, UTU and its fellow unions the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), would create an element of independent and objective oversight of the specially granted police powers given to railroads.

“If we can pass H.B. 5159 through the Senate and enact it into law, for the first time the private railroad corporations that have law-enforcement powers will have an element of public oversight as all municipal, county and state police do,” Szabo said.

“While there is always the risk of an individual officer abusing his power — as there is on any police department — for the most part the men and women who wear the badge for a railroad are highly professional,” Szabo said. “Our concern is how railroad supervisors use this special power, particularly as a tool against the employees.”

Under current law, Szabo said, charges of misconduct or abuse of authority by railroad police are investigated by the management of the same railroad that employs the police, not by civil police or civil review boards.

“That is not true objectivity,” Szabo said. “Essentially, it means the railroad is investigating itself. If H.B. 5159 becomes law, any charges against railroad police could be investigated by the Illinois State Police, and any enforcement, including fines or orders to cease and desist, will be carried out by the Illinois Commerce Commission [ICC].”

Szabo said the large majority H.B. 5159 attracted in the House is a tribute not only to the activism of UTU members, but also to the work of Assistant State Legislative Director Bob Guy.

“Pushing this bill through was the first major lobbying assignment Bob took on since he assumed his new title last year, and he did a terrific job under difficult conditions,” Szabo said. “Several pieces of language in the draft legislation had to be rewritten or modified in response to the needs of different House members, and, of course, the bill faced tremendous opposition from the railroads, who always fight strenuously against any limitations on their powers. Bob kept pushing and he got it through.

“Essentially, the House members understood that they were being asked to support a provision that goes not only to the heart of American law but to the U.S. Constitution itself: separation of powers,” Szabo said.

“They understood that a private corporation with the unique authority to exercise police power cannot be allowed to exercise that power without some kind of outside independent and objective oversight. They also understood that such police power must be restricted to the same mission as civil police powers: protection of life and property. It cannot be used as a tool to enforce a private corporate-management policy.”