July 24, 2004

SPRINGFIELD (July 24)—Despite a protracted battle in which a $3-billion-plus budget shortfall forced most state-funded programs to receive less money than they asked for, the UTU Illinois Legislative Board was able to achieve success on virtually its entire set of legislative priorities during the 2003-2004 overtime Session.

When the General Assembly adjourned today after a record 54 days in overtime Session, the UTU had successfully won passage of two key items and sustained its position on several others.

The first, a law mandating walkway-safety standards for railroad yards, was a major priority of a union whose members have been plagued with injuries due to large ballast and hazardous walking surfaces in railroad yards.

The General Assembly also passed a resolution ordering the Illinois Auditor General to analyze the business-travel costsof state employees to determine whether the state can save money by switching its traveling employees from cars and planes to Amtrak trains.

And working jointly with the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition and Environmental Law and Policy Center, the foundation has been set in the Illinois General Assembly for a Passenger Rail Caucus to advocate for expanded service throughout the state.

It’s not just offense – it’s defense

Equally important, UTU assisted in preventing the passage of legislation capable of threatening the interests of rail employees, including an attempt to re-open the legislation that established the Regional Transportation Authority in Chicagoland.

“The RTA Act contains language, negotiated by UTU several years ago, that specifically protects the rights of our members working at the Metra commuter rail system,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Any attempt to change that Act could affect our members’ Railroad Retirement benefits, injury rights, and their labor-protection benefits in the event that there are ever job cuts. Equally as important, any attempt to tinker with the RTA funding allocations could affect the future stability and growth of the system and our jobs.”

In fact, Szabo said, about half of the UTU’s victories in the current Session came not through legislation that the union got passed, but through proposed legislation that the union prevented from passing.

“We have to play both offense and defense to protect our members,” Szabo said. “On the defense side, we also prevented efforts to cut the state’s budget for supporting Amtrak’s corridor trains. The trains to St. Louis, Carbondale, Quincy and Milwaukee got $12.1 million state support last year, and they will get the same amount next year. And we fended off any effort to cut the Illinois Commerce Commission’s budget for rail-safety programs. It’s still $8 million per year.”

Union goes high-tech

Assistant Legislative Director John Burner said he uses a special computer program offered by State Net, a legislative-research provider, to spot bills that might contain language affecting the interests of UTU members.

“It’s programmed with key words like ‘railroad,’ ‘crossing,’ ‘walkway,’ ‘locomotive,’ ‘signal,’ ‘Commission,’ ‘passenger rail’ and ‘freight rail,’” Burner said. “Whenever the program finds those words in a piece of legislation, it flags the bill so I can examine it.”

Burner said in the 2003-2004 session state legislators introduced 12,714 bills and resolutions, of which 214 were spotted by the computer as having a potential impact on UTU members. Burner read all 214 bills and alerted Szabo to their implications.

Result: The union was able to defeat not just efforts to cut the state’s budget for rail programs, but also prevented passage of bills that would have unfairly applied the state’s motor-fuel tax to railroad diesel fuel and would have imposed a sales tax on railroad rolling stock.

“Those bills would have meant significant job loss for UTU members by diverting rail traffic to trucks,” Szabo said. “Fortunately, our defensive game was just as strong as our offensive game, so we were able to stymie all attempts that would have weakened rail transportation and endangered railroad jobs. It was a good year.”

Szabo praised the work of Assistant Director John Burner and Alternate Director Robert Guy in the long, drawn-out legislative session.

“John and Bob worked their butts off during this busy session,” Szabo said. “Then John had to remain at or near the Capitol virtually every day through the overtime in June and July until we got a budget. Too much happens too fast in the final budget negotiations not to have UTU’s interests closely guarded. John was there day after long drawn-out day.”

Szabo said the only item on the union’s legislative agenda that did not emerge intact from the 2003-2004 Session was the bill to consolidate the Illinois Commerce Commission’s rail-safety programs into the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“From an administrative standpoint we believe it would have made more sense to have those programs inside IDOT,” Szabo said. “But now our focus will be to work within the existing structure at IDOT and the Commission, ensure our rail programs are well funded, and ensure that rail safety programs are properly implemented with rules enforced as the legislature intended.”

Membership involvement makes the difference

But the union’s legislative department can reach its ultimate level of effectiveness only through membership involvement, Szabo said.

“We can achieve bigger legislative victories by having a well organized, Rapid Response army that acts together in a planned and coordinated fashion,” he said.

“That’s what the Rapid Response Network is about. Involvement in the army is as simple as going to http://www.illini.utu.org/, clicking on ‘Rapid Response Registration’ and filling in your e-mail address and zip code.”

Once signed up for Rapid Response, members get e-mails directly from the Board advising them of legislative updates and information on calls for action.

“Every Rapid Response message our members transmit actually sends legislators two messages,” Szabo said: “the message itself, plus an unspoken message that says: ‘This union is organized.'”