February 14, 2003

CHICAGO (Feb. 14)–Persistent action by UTU locals and prompt follow-up by the Illinois Legislative Board have resulted in the upgrading of two crew locker rooms that had been the object of repeated employee complaints of unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

At Kolbe, 11 miles southwest of Peoria on the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad, an ageing steel building used by a daily three-man switch crew as well as occasional maintenance-of-way gangs got the first functioning plumbing it has known in years, along with new paint and upgraded heating.

And at Ottawa, on a piece of trackage that CSX Corp. acquired two decades ago from the estate of the bankrupt Rock Island Railroad, a modern locker room/shower in a trailer will replace a dilapidated welfare room that occupied part of a weighmaster’s room from which the yard’s track scale is operated.

“The crews had been complaining about it for a number of years, but the railroad just wasn’t responding,” said Local 198 Vice Chairman Josh Sheehan of the TP&W’s Kolbe facility.

“The plumbing in the bathroom had been shut off years ago, but nobody drained it properly, so some of the pipes froze and cracked during a cold spell,” Sheehan said.

“When that happened they came along and installed one of those portable plastic outhouses, but the wind blew it over in the middle of winter and it lay there for six months. Nobody wanted to use it in the winter anyway. The place never had hot water or a sink. The connections to the city water main had been damaged years before. Bottled drinking water was delivered to the building and a dispenser was set up. When the men had to wash up they would drain some drinking water out of the dispenser into a gallon milk carton with the top half cut off and that would be their sink.”

The deterioration of the building wasn’t a serious problem when it was used only intermittently, Sheehan said. But several years ago the TP&W decided to move a five-day-a-week switching job out of its East Peoria yard and start it at Kolbe to be closer to two major chemical plants, a river-to-rail transloading plant for fertilizer, and the Caterpillar engine-block foundry.

Sheehan said the UTU agreed to the use of Kolbe as a starting point because it promised improved service to the customers and more business for the railroad. But both parties understood that if the change became permanent the railroad would upgrade the Kolbe welfare room.

The promised improvements never came, however, and that caused problems, because the Kolbe job is one of the TP&W’s toughest.

“The shift normally runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and sometimes they’ll call in a crew to work on the weekend when business is heavy,” Sheehan said. “We handle lots of cars on a shift. The Witco chemical plant has a 13-track yard with between 75 and 80 cars in it at a time. Normally we will spend half our shift there. The Kolbe job is one of the few switching jobs in the RailAmerica network with two men on the ground, a conductor and a brakeman. Believe me, they do not like to run three-man crews, but at Kolbe it’s really justified.”

When the crews began returning after 12 hours of switching in the hot Central Illinois sun they expected a hot shower and a place to change into clean clothes before returning home.

“After all, it’s the law,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The Illinois Employee Washroom Act says employees who work at occupations where they are exposed to dirt, dust, smoke, steam or dangerous chemicals are entitled to clean, properly heated and well lighted spaces equipped with flush toilets, hot showers and storage facilities for a change of clothing.”

“We complained to the company, but all they ever did was install a propane wall heater and a tank for it outside,” Sheehan said. “I would say they dragged their feet in a very professional manner. So we asked Joe Szabo to come and have a look. He drove down from Chicago and took one look and hung his head and said, ‘Oh, my.’”

“Quite frankly, it was one dingy room–lunch room and locker room all together in the same little space,” Szabo said. “The washroom was beyond unusable–no hot water, and debris and crumbling plaster and exposed piping in the walls. The place looked like a bomb had gone off.”

Szabo wrote a letter of complaint that same day to the Illinois Commerce Commission, which agreed to send one of its inspectors to the facility August 19. Szabo drove down to Kolbe again to accompany the inspector, who verified the union’s allegations. The Commission wrote to the TP&W reminding the carrier of its obligations under the law. Discussions followed, the railroad agreed to bring the Kolbe facility into compliance, and work began.

“They did a full remodeling,” Szabo said. “Shower, washroom, hot water, toilet–they’re in full compliance.”

“They even installed a supplementary heater for the shower room because it tends to get a little colder in there,” Sheehan said. “And they installed a special detoxification shower to remove dangerous chemicals in case a worker is contaminated by hazardous materials.”

“Kolbe is an excellent example of what can be accomplished when a union Local and the Legislative Board cooperate effectively with each other and with state government to get the law enforced,” Szabo said. “This little case history shows that things work out when you work with your union.”

The same principle is about to be demonstrated at Ottawa, where CSX Corp. maintains a busy three-shift yard to service industrial traffic from a large glass factory and several smaller industries. Local 1594 Chairman John Tanner had been complaining to the railroad about its inadequate locker/shower room for some time without success, so he asked Szabo to take a look.

“I inspected their locker-room facilities on August 6 and they just were not acceptable–not in compliance,” Szabo said. “The building was undersized, way too close to the switching lead, and the toilet was just awful. They were using a bucket to collect overflow from a urinal that wasn’t draining properly.”

As with Kolbe, Szabo wrote to the Commerce Commission and met with an inspector at the Ottawa yard August 19. The inspector advised his superiors in his report that the facility was not in compliance. On January 16 of this year Szabo met with CSX management, which not only agreed to install a new trailer equipped with all the required plumbing and lunchroom amenities, but also agreed to bring the old welfare room into compliance as well.

“The feel that at some point they are going to have enough female employees at that site to justify their own locker room and shower,” Szabo said. “The threshold figure is six women. They’re not there yet, but CSX wants to be ready when female employment hits that level.”

Szabo said the new Ottawa locker room is scheduled to open in mid-March and should be considered another victory for the union and the employees even though it will probably miss its deadline for opening by a couple of weeks.

“Let’s just say that at Kolbe we already scored a run and at Ottawa we have a man on third,” he said.

But the likelihood of improvement is not so promising at two other facilities about which the UTU has complained to railroad management.

“We have filed informal complaints with the Iowa Interstate Railroad about their crew locker room at Rock Island and with the Norfolk Southern Corp. about the crew facilities at their 39th and Ashland yard and their 55th Street intermodal yard on the South Side of Chicago,” Szabo said. “Both sites have been confirmed by the Commerce Commission as being out of compliance, but so far we are not getting the appropriate responses.”

When a railroad fails to respond to jawboning as TP&W and CSX did, the process goes to another level, Szabo said.

“The union can file a Formal Complaint and have the Commerce Commission force the carrier to act,” he said. “A Formal Complaint is somewhat like a lawsuit, except it is filed with an administrative agency rather than the court system. If the Commission finds the railroad out of compliance on a Formal Complaint, it can not only force compliance but can fine the carrier as well for each day it remains out of compliance.”

“I inspected the Rock Island facility and found it dismal,” Szabo said. “It is being used as the starting point for two yard engines and as the crew-change point for all eastbound and westbound road jobs–more than 25 employees a day are supposed to change their clothes, shower and eat there, but it’s dilapidated and unfit for its current use. We are demanding that modern washrooms, shower rooms and toilets, and heating and ventilating be installed to bring it up to compliance, and that they bring in an architect and reconfigure it so that all of the facilities are connected to each other through the interior of the building, which they are not now. We are also demanding that lockers be installed. Currently there is no way to store and secure a clean set of clothes at that facility. I inspected the place December 9 and it doesn’t even have a shower. It’s in total non-compliance.”

Szabo said he already has hired an attorney to draft and file a Formal Complaint with the Commission about the Rock Island facility.

The Norfolk Southern facilities cited in Chicago are not as seriously out of compliance as Kolbe and Rock Island, but Szabo said the inability to get a response from NS management has been exasperating.

“We have a meeting scheduled for February 21 to discuss the conditions at 39th and Ashland and at 55th and Stewart,” he said. “The 55th Street building is very old. It not only lacks the sanitation and comfort amenities specified by law but has structural problems as well. There actually are some spaces inside the building where you are exposed to the elements. We are supposed to meet with the superintendent as well as a vice president for government relations, and I hope we can secure a commitment to have these facilities brought into compliance.

“The problem,” Szabo said, “is that some of these railroads make oral promises but refuse to back them up with a written commitment to have a facility upgraded and in compliance by a date certain. They can drag the process out indefinitely.

“That’s not going to work this time,” he said. “If the meeting on the 21st doesn’t go the right way I will ask our lawyer to file a Formal Complaint against NS as well.”