November 26, 2001

Most people think that unions exist primarily to bargain with employers over employee wages and benefits.

But collective bargaining is less than half the story. The real power of labor unions is the way they work behind the scenes–in the halls of Congress and the fifty state legislatures–to pass laws that protect jobs, create safe and healthful workplaces, enhance employee rights, and provide health care, education and consumer protection to working families. The most effective union power is political power.

Members of railroad labor got a sobering lesson in that principle on Friday, November 9. That’s when the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) voted 6-5 that Amtrak will not become financially self-sufficient in time to meet a congressionally mandated deadline of September 30, 2002.

Because of this vote, legally known as a “finding,” Amtrak could be forced to submit a plan for its own liquidation, and the ARC itself can submit a plan for Amtrak’s restructuring and reorganization. The result could be a shutdown of Amtrak service, a partial shutdown, a conveyance of some Amtrak operations to another operating entity,or perhaps the sale of some of Amtrak’s assets to new owners. Only one thing is certain: The future is uncertain.

How did this bizarre scenario come about? Why did Congress establish a council with the authority to determine whether Amtrak should or should not exist? Why did it appoint 11 members to the council, six of whom turned out to be hostile to Amtrak? Why did it demand that Amtrak become profitable within five years–a demand it has never made on any of the airlines, bus lines, truck lines, overnight package delivery services and chartered tour companies that operate over the federally funded highway, airway and seaport systems?

It happened because when push came to shove during the Amtrak re-authorization vote in 1997, Congress heeded Amtrak’s enemies instead of Amtrak’s friends. Congress listened to the railroads, which prefer Amtrak dead, and to the economic right wing, which mysteriously continues to believe that passenger trains can be privatized and profitable, even though their “private” competitors such as cars and airplanes get access to a state-of-the-art government right of way built with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

Political clout in the hands of Amtrak’s enemies is what put Amtrak in danger back in 1997. Political clout in those same hands is what nearly signed Amtrak’s death warrant November 9. The political power of Amtrak’s enemies is why we as rail workers must prepare to exercise our own political strength in order to protect Amtrak’s future and the jobs of the 20,000 scheduled employees who keep Amtrak’s trains rolling.

Fortunately, Amtrak’s enemies do not have to have a monopoly on political clout. Amtrak’s friends can become politically powerful too. As a friend of Amtrak and a labor-union member, you’re already posotioned to exercise political power in three ways:

1. Be prepared to send letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls to your elected representatives when directed by union leadership. Important legislation is likely to come up for a vote in the very near future, so stand by for instructions on which legislators to contact and what to say.

2. Register to vote now! Don’t wait until the countdown to Election Day begins. Call your City Hall or County Board now and ask how to register. It’s a simple procedure and a detail you can dispose of quickly.

3. Vote for the UTU-endorsed candidates. Union endorsements will be based on each incumbent’s past voting record on Amtrak, high-speed rail, and Railroad Retirement issues, as well as on the candidate’s pledge to vote for UTU-approved legislation in the future.

In addition to voting for pro-labor candidates, you can actually help them get elected. That’s why the railroad unions have established TPEL–the Transportation Political Action League. TPEL is a program that raises campaign funds to support political candidates who are favorable to the interests of railroad workers and their families. TPEL supports the candidates who support railroad workers, regardless of party.

For example, as we gear up for the 2002 elections, TPEL is helping to fund candidates who support federal and state funding for building new high-speed passenger rail systems and new commuter-rail startups. It’s funding candidates who vote yes for a stronger, bigger Amtrak. It supports candidates who support S. 250, the High Speed Rail Investment Act. And it supports candidates who want to pass H.R. 1140, the Railroad Retirement and Survivors Improvement Act.

Candidates who support these new laws qualify for TPEL support. Candidates who do not support these laws, or who support legislation contrary to the interests of railroad workers and their families, do not receive TPEL funding. It’s as simple as that.

By joining TPEL, you contribute part of your paycheck to supporting the campaigns of candidates who will fight for railroad jobs and railroaders’ rights. Whenever an issue important to railroaders and their families becomes the subject of political debate, TPEL is there to make sure the legislators who vote to protect our jobs get the financial support they need to win election and re-election.

Don’t let our friends in Congress and the fifty state capitols down. Become part of TPEL now, and start helping the legislators who are helping you. Ask your local UTU chairman or secretary/treasurer to explain how the process works and provide you with an enrollment form. Or call Tina O’Brian in the office of Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo at (312) 236-5353, and an enrollment form will be sent to you directly. You also can learn more about how TPEL works by going back to the Home Page and clicking the TPEL link on the left side.

Don’t let them do it again. Don’t let hostile congressmen and senators endanger Amtrak’s 20,000 jobs or delay the building of the high-speed rail lines our nation’s travelers need. Join TPEL now!