December 20, 2001

WASHINGTON (Dec. 5)–The United States Senate this morning passed the Railroad Retirement and Survivors Improvement Act by an overwhelming vote of 90-9, bringing the nation’s rail employees, spouses and survivors the first major upgrade in benefits in more than a generation.

Both senators from Illinois, Democrat Richard J. Durbin and Republican Peter Fitzgerald, voted “Yes” on the historic measure. “There’s no doubt that last-minute phone calls from railroad-union members and their families were the key to winning the battle for Railroad Retirement reform in the Senate today,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The staff aides in the senatorial offices told us the calls just poured in. This is union solidarity and member activism at its best–the brothers and sisters really delivered for one another.”

But it wasn’t easy, Szabo pointed out, noting that the struggle to pass the legislation became enmeshed in 11th-hour parliamentary maneuvering. “It started Monday when the Minority Leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, proposed combining the Railroad Retirement legislation with two other bills totally unrelated to Railroad Retirement,” Szabo said. “One was a law that would allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. The other was a bill to prohibit human cloning. Sen. Lott knew that many supporters of Railroad Retirement reform would not vote for the bill if it included those ‘riders.'”

That threat receded, however, after the rail unions called on their members to “blitz” their senators with phone calls protesting the attachment of ‘rider’ bills to the Railroad Retirement bill. Senators Durbin and Fitzgerald both voted against Lott’s attachments.

A second potential challenge was averted moments later when a majority voted in favor of Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D–S.Dak.) motion for “cloture,” meaning no further attachments could be proposed before the bill moved to the floor for a vote. Again, Senators Durbin and Fitzgerald supported the Railroad Retirement coalition and protected the bill against being combined with other legislation.

But when the bill came to the floor Tuesday a new challenge arose. Opponents of the bill began offering more than 20 amendments to its language, a form of tinkering which threatened to change some of the benefits the bill would make available to railroad employees and upset an agreement that negotiators for the rail unions and rail carriers had worked out nearly two years earlier.

Most of the amendments never got a chance to be acted on, however. After a second union phone blitz urged senators to shun all tinkering and pass a bill containing only the original language, the first three amendments went down to defeat and the remaining amendments were pulled by their sponsors. This time the voting by the Illinois delegation was not solid, however: Sen. Durbin stuck with the Railroad Retirement reform coalition by opposing all three potential “killer” amendment proposals, while Sen. Fitzgerald voted to include them.

When the bill came up for a vote this morning only one small cloud appeared briefly on the horizon: a senator invoked a parliamentary procedure known as a “budgetary point of order” to block the final vote. His motion was soundly defeated, however, with Senators Durbin and Fitzgerald voting atgainst it, and moments later the Railroad Retirement and Survivors Improvement Act of 2001–with all of its original language intact–passed by a vote of 90-9.

“There is no doubt whatever that it was the action of our members and the members of the other railroad unions that enabled this major Railroad Retirement reform bill to overcome its opposition and be passed in the Senate,” Szabo said. “To put it bluntly, the telephone
campaign got results.”

Szabo said union leaders were particularly pleased by the way union members stuck with their phone campaign and kept getting the message out to their senators despite frequent and sometimes tricky adjustments that had to be made to the message itself.

“I know it’s not easy for people who aren’t professional lobbyists or lawyers to follow all the intricate procedures that go on in a legislature,” Szabo said. “The language is archaic and the rules are complex.”

“That is why those of us on the scene are so appreciative of the way the members waited patiently until it was time to act,” he said. “The members trusted the union leadership to create the right message, they listened carefully to the messages we asked then to transmit–and then they phoned their senators and got the messages out.

“The sheer volume of those union phone calls, and the clarity and consistency of all those different members phoning in the same message–that’s what got the job done,” Szabo said. “It was a terrific campaign and a tremendous example of union solidarity in action. The members kept the faith with one another, with their leadership and with the generations to come who will enjoy these additional retirement benefits.”

Szabo said only two more steps must be taken before Railroad Retirement reform becomes law. First, the bill must be sent back to the House for what he called “a minor technical correction which is considered routine.” Then it must go to President Bush for his signature.

“There is no need for any phone calls at this time,” Szabo said, “except for a call or letter to thank your senator for his voting members to relax and wait for further instructions should any prove needed. Getting legislation passed is a lot like railroad work–long periods of nerve-wracking boredom followed by short, intense bursts of frantic activity. Maybe that’s why railroad people are so good at it.”