October 17, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 17)—When the U.S. House passed the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act 377-38 today, the voting tally had Illinois UTU fingerprints all over it.

“All 19 Illinois congressmen, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted for H.R. 2095, and the main reason is our UTU brothers and sisters asked them to,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“Total bi-partisan support on this scale happens only when constituents bombard their elected representatives with phone calls, faxes, e-mails and personal visits, and that’s exactly how our UTU members in Illinois made it happen,” Szabo said. “Our approach works—it gets results.”

H.R. 2095 also bore Illinois fingerprints in a key part of its language.

“Provisions of the Illinois Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act have been inserted bodily into the new federal railroad safety legislation,” Szabo said. “If we can pass similar language with a veto-proof majority in the Senate as well, every railroad worker in the United States, not just those in Illinois, will be protected against supervisors who try to deny, delay or interfere with an injured employee’s medical treatment.”

Szabo noted that in January the railroad industry succeeded in getting the Illinois Act set aside in federal court on grounds that “only the federal government had the right to regulate the medical treatment of railroad employees.”

“The railroads claimed ‘federal pre-emption,’ and now H.R. 2095 is giving it to them,” he said. “If we have success in the Senate, the federal government, not just one state, will penalize railroads for interfering with the medical treatment of their injured employees.”

Szabo said the UTU Legislative Board will be issuing another Membership Alert when the time is right for action in the Senate.

“Getting a veto-proof vote in the Upper Chamber is going to be harder than it was in the House,” he said. “We will need an even more intense membership outreach effort. I am asking our members to stand by for their marching orders when the time comes. If we all act in unison we will succeed. That’s been proven time and time again.”

In addition to the prohibitions on tampering with employees’ medical treatment, H.R. 2095 focuses the nation’s rail carriers on safety in a dozen other ways, virtually eliminating limbo time, guaranteeing train-crew members 10 ours of undisturbed rest and permitting one 24-hour off-duty period every seven days. Minimum and uniform training standards would be mandated for all employees, conductors would have to be certified, whistleblowers would be guaranteed protection against reprisal and conductors would have authority to refuse to operate unsafe equipment. The railroads would have to install Positive Train Control by 2014 and install mainline switch monitors in dark territory.

“H.R. 2095 is a watershed in the history of railroad safety—as important as the 19th-century federal legislation that mandated air brakes and knuckle couplers,” Szabo said. “Congressman Oberstar [D-Minn.], the sponsor of this bill, is so serious that he even inserted language changing the name of the Federal Railroad Administration to the Federal Railroad Safety Administration.”

But Szabo said the new legislation is expected to meet intense industry resistance.

“The railroads fought against knuckle couplers, air brakes and block signals in the 19th century, and they’re going to fight against Cong. Oberstar’s reforms the same way in the 21st,” he said.

“The railroads are intoxicated with the new profits they’ve been making and feel that bigger and bigger profits are an entitlement that need not be earned,” he said. “For them, safety weakens profits because it costs money.

“That’s why the UTU is asking all members to stand by for the next Membership Alert in the Senate. We know from experience we succeed when we stick together, follow the union program and reach out to elected officials at the same time and with the same message. It’s not time yet—but it will be soon—so get ready to make those phone calls.”