March 18, 2002
CHICAGO (March 18)–The UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board announced today it has established a Leaders of Distinction program to acknowledge those members who have made outstanding contributions to the Transportation Political Education League (TPEL).
TPEL is the UTU’s Political Action Committee (PAC). Its function is to raise funds for the election campaigns of candidates who support the interests of railroad workers, their families and organized labor and to make sure railroad workers understand which candidates are on their side.
“The Legislative Board has long felt that those members who have displayed leadership in supporting TPEL should have some sort of recognition,” said the Board’s Director, Joseph C. Szabo. “These individuals have voluntarily contributed a substantial part of their paycheck to help assure that the needs of railroad workers and their dependents are represented in the U.S. Congress and the Illinois General Assembly. We especially appreciate their contributions today, when their work has led to the passage of such important legislation as the Railroad Retirement and Survivors Improvement Act of 2001. That was union political action at its best.”
Szabo said acknowledgment of the Leaders of Distinction will take several forms.
Most prominent among the acknowledgments is a new link on the state Web page listing all of the Leaders. By scrolling down the left side of the Home Page to “TPEL” and then clicking “Leaders of Distinction,” members can view a list of all of the Leaders ranked by the size of their contribution, from $300 per year in the “Diamond Club,” to the “Dollar-a-Day Club,” to the “Diamond Plus Club ($400 or more), “Double Diamond Club” ($600 or more, and “Platinum Club” ($1,200).
In addition, each Leader receives a Certificate of Distinction, and the Leader’s achievement is discussed in a mailing to his local.
Why are the Leaders so willing to commit meaningful amounts of their paychecks to TPEL? For Harry Lewis, a Union Pacific engineer based at Proviso Yard and Vice Chairman of Local 597, the answer was simple:
“I’m asking my members to contribute, so in order to stand up in front of them I’ve got be able to say, ‘been there, done that,'” he said. “I have to walk the walk if I’m going to talk the talk. I guess the real reason is that I understand the importance of politics in making things happen for railroad workers. We have to get checks to the right political campaigns and get the right people elected. That’s how we ended up getting our Railroad Retirement benefits increased.”
Steve Lampman, a member of Local 445 in Niota and a BNSF conductor operating between Fort Madision, Ia., and Chicago, said much the same thing.
“I believe it’s just the most important thing a member can do,” he said. “Without TPEL we wouldn’t be making what we’re making. It’s as simple as that. I give a dollar a day, and I think it’s the best investment you can make.”
Lampman, a 25-year veteran who hired out with the Santa Fe in 1977, says it can be frustrating trying to persuade younger members to contribute to TPEL. So he takes the time to explain to them that under the Railway Labor Act, it’s almost impossible for railroad workers to strike for better wages, benefits or workplace conditions. By default, rail workers advance their interests largely by persuading sympathetic legislators to pass laws that protect them.
“The strike side is gone,” Lampman said. “There’s no more pounding your fist on the table to get your way–that’s not how railroad employees win these days. It’s done through politics. You have to elect people who work for your interests. And with this administration that’s in the White House now, without TPEL it would be a total loss for us.”
John Edwards, the Chairman of Lampman’s local, reported that he too had one of those light-bulb moments when he figured out how the system worked.
“What brought it to the forefront for me is the last several elections,” Edwards said. “We in railroading are unique: Our jobs are controlled by the president of the United States. He’s the one who appoints the Supreme Court justices and the federal judges who rule on our cases. He appoints the members of the Surface Transportation Board and the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. We can negotiate the best agreements in the world with the railroad industry and then the railroads can go running to the president’s appointees for rulings that favor them.”
Edwards says he too has had difficulty convincing younger members that they need to support TPEL.
“They usually say something like, ‘I don’t like people telling me how to vote,'” he said. “I try to explain to them that it’s not about ‘telling’ people how to vote. It’s about showing the members which candidates have the best records so they can make up their own minds about who will do the best job of serving their interests.
“That’s why we call it a political education league,” Edwards said. “We educate our members about the candidates. Like Congressman Lane Evans (D-Moline). You could not find a better supporter of the interests of railroad people and their families. Our support for his campaign helps him get his views out before the public.”
Szabo said Lewis, Lampman and Edwards are just the type of union members that should be held up as examples of the right way for a citizen to become involved in the political process.
“These are railroad workers who have studied the issues and the candidates and have put their money where their mouths are,” he said. “Their contributions are the reason the UTU has friends in Congress who sponsored the new Railroad Retirement bill and friends
in the Illinois General Assembly who passed legislation to tighten state oversight of crew-van safety. I wish we had a couple hundred more of them.”