May 12, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (May 12)—UTU members won big as the Illinois General Assembly adjourned its 2006 Session after taking several actions that will grow jobs and protect rail employee rights.

Rail travelers—including those riding now and those yet to come—were the big winners as state legislators followed UTU’s lead and voted to double the state’s annual budget for passenger trains. The legislators even passed a bill allowing the state to acquire its own passenger-train rolling stock.

And rail employees won as well. The General Assembly voted amendments that will give railroaders greater protection against abuses by railroad police and passed a resolution opposing a rail-industry move to overturn the Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act.

All of the action came in response to initiatives which the UTU Illinois Legislative Board either initiated or supported in concert with other groups. All bills have now gone to Governor Blagojevich for his signature.

The year of the passenger train

“The Illinois passenger-train budget was $12.1 million dollars and the number of daily trains it supported was three—the same number of trains and roughly the same amount of funding we’ve had for the last 20 years,” Szabo said.

“Now all of a sudden the state’s annual budget for passenger trains has shot to $25 million, and on October 29 the number of daily round trips will go from three to seven,” he said. “It’s the first time since the founding of Amtrak in 1971 that a state has doubled its passenger-train support and doubled its frequencies all at once. Illinois is really showing some forward thinking just as the price of gasoline is pushing more and more travelers toward the train.”

“We had some powerful allies on this one,” Szabo said. “We teamed with the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the Illinois Municipal League, which represents the mayors and chief elected officials from hundreds of big and small cities around the state. Even the state Universities got involved.

State will have authority to own passenger trains

The UTU and its allies also were instrumental in getting the General Assembly to pass H.B. 5220. That bill allows the state to own or lease its own fleet of passenger-rail rolling stock, which could be crucial to the success of future efforts to expand service.

“Right now all of the locomotives and coaches on the state’s intercity passenger trains are supplied by Amtrak,” Szabo said. “But with the Bush administration continually cutting Amtrak’s funding, that may not be an adequate source of rolling stock for Illinois and other states in the future. We have to protect our own interests.”

RR police professionalized; employee rights protected

UTU’s legislative team also proved effective in persuading legislators to professionalize railroad police departments in the state. On March 1 the Senate unanimously passed S.B. 2243, which mandated that railroad special agents must graduate from an accredited police training academy and must be governed by the same type of professional standards and policies as those prevailing in community police departments.

On March 16 the House passed the same legislation—also unanimously. The new legislation also restricts railroad police from investigating a railroad employee unless the employee has been accused of a crime, has been in an accident, or if a threat of violence in the workplace has been made. Employees questioned by railroad police will have the right to a have a union officer present during the interrogation.

Senate outraged at railroad threat to Medical Treatment Act

Another late development in the session was the May 4 passage by the Senate of a resolution reprimanding the Class I railroads for filing a federal lawsuit attempting to overturn the Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act enacted into law last year. The resolution’s author, Sen. William R. Haine (D-Alton), charged the rail industry with having “sandbagged” the Senate by seeking to eliminate a law it had accepted in earlier negotiations with that body.

No downside for rail employees

Szabo summarized the 2006 legislative session as a “clean sweep” for the interests of UTU members, with passage secured for all legislation favorable to rail employees and no passage of any unfavorable or anti-labor legislation. Even the new passenger-rail budget, which was aimed primarily at promoting personal mobility and community development, will have a strong payoff for rail labor, he said.

“I did a little tally in my head after the budget passed and realized that these four new trains mean more jobs,” Szabo said. “The Amtrak people told me they’re getting ready to hire and train now in order to have the trains ready to roll October 29. Between the new conductors and engineers, those four trains will generate more than 30 new jobs. Once again, UTU came out a winner in our Illinois General Assembly.”