January/February 2017 Legislative Report
By Kathleen Bisbikis, National 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Rep, BLET Auxiliary
Below are some of the most recent news items that affect all of us. Please feel free to share these with your local auxiliary. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
H.R. 233 the Safe Freight Act 2017 – have you shown your support?
On January 3, 2017, Congressman Don Young from Alaska re-introduced the Safe Freight Act of 2017 (H.R. 233). This legislation would mandate a two-person crew on all freight trains—a certified engineer and a certified conductor.
BLET members, both active and retired, as well as auxiliary members are urged to contact their House representatives and ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 233. Members can reach the U. S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to the representative from your congressional district. You can also go online at http://www.house.gov/htbin/findrep, enter your zip code, and your representative’s information will be provided.
The Safe Freight Act affects all of us in the railroad industry, regardless if we are the employee or the family member at home. It’s a bill about safety, not just for the communities that these trains travel through, but also for the men and woman who are in the cabs of the locomotives, and for the peace of mind for those of us at home worried about things that we cannot control while our loved ones are at work. One person on a train is not enough, and no amount of propaganda that the carriers or the government are willing to try to sell us will ever make up for the second person sitting in the cab should an emergency arise. We need co-sponsors for this bill. When the bill was introduced in 2016, 69 congressmen co-sponsored it; we need more in 2017. How do we get there? We all need to step up and stop expecting someone else to do what we need to do ourselves. Pick up the phone, write a letter, go to your computer and electronically make your voice heard. However you choose to do it, get it done. Let’s show Congress that we know what the words solidarity and strength mean by deafening our representatives with our voices in support of this bill that is not just important, it’s imperative!
In a newsflash on the BLET website, National President Dennis R. Pierce said: “In spite of what the railroads might say, technology has not advanced to the point that it can replace the eyes and ears of railroad professionals. Please do your part as the job you save may be your own.”
Texas Lawmakers try to “Derail” State’s Bullet Train
Lawmakers in Texas filed 18 bills in an effort to put a halt to the privately funded bullet train that would make the 240-mile run between the cities of Houston and Dallas. The laws are aimed at complicating the company’s ability to acquire private property via eminent domain, as well as strengthening the protection of the landowners. The bills would also prohibit the state from ever maintaining or operating the high-speed rail operation. “I still have doubts about whether a high-speed rail project makes sense for Texas,” Texas State Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) said. “Taxpayers should not be expected to pay the bill if the project fails.”
Texas Central, the company in charge of the high-speed rail project, announced in February that property owners have agreed to sell approximately 30 percent of the land needed for the rail project once environmental clearances have been finalized and construction is ready to begin. The biggest issue facing Texas Central and its opponents is the company’s use of eminent domain to acquire property because it’s a railroad. Property owners and lawmakers are challenging Texas Central’s eminent domain authority.
Elected officials in both cities support the high-speed rail project. “Our legislature should be in the business of expanding transportation options and embracing innovation,” the group Texas Rail Advocates said in a statement. “We hope legislators don’t fall victim to a vocal minority who would have our state bury its head in the sand by ignoring our growing population and clogged roads.”
Once completed, the Texas bullet train would use Japanese bullet train technology. The trip between Dallas and Houston would take approximately 90 minutes and would have one stop near College Station.
Supreme Court Review of Two-Person Crew
The BLET scored a major victory when the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court’s decision against the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway (W&LE) when the railroad attempted to use managers in place of union members on railroad crews.
“This final decision by the highest court in the land reminds us all of the importance of strong contract language, followed by strong union activism, to protect our contracts,” BLET President Dennis Pierce said. “The now unimpeachable decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is not only important for our W&LE members, but for all operating employees and rail labor in general. The nationwide fight over operating crew size is far from over, but this victory helps to ensure that union contracts requiring two crew members are enforceable by the union, even to the point of a strike.”
Win in New Hampshire over Right to Work Legislation
Despite full Republican control of the State House and aggressive lobbying efforts by New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu, New Hampshire will not be added to the growing list of right to work states. The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 200-177 to kill the union-targeting legislation that called for prohibiting unions from charging fees to nonmembers for the costs of representation. Additionally, the House moved to indefinitely postpone the bill, making it ineligible for debate for the next two years.
Republican Rep. Sean Morrison, a firefighter, said suggestions that right to work would attract businesses into New Hampshire were misplaced. Roughly nine percent of New Hampshire workers are unionized, according to federal statistics, and between just three to four percent are in private unions. He argued that the legislation would weaken the power of unions, therefore hurting workers. “I implore you to oppose this attack on our middle class,” Morrison said.
There are currently 28 states that have passed right to work legislation: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, and most recently Kentucky in January 2017 and Missouri on February 6, 2017.
Ohio is the state currently in the hot seat with its right to work battle underway. This is the second time right to work legislation has been introduced in the state of Ohio. When first enacted by Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Governor Kasich in 2011, it was repealed by the State’s voters in a 2012 ballot initiative. “In Ohio, union and non-union people have said we think people deserve a fair shake and the ability to negotiate fair wages and conditions in the workplace and I think they’ll respond negatively to that kind of legislation,” House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn said.
New Railroad Crossing Ad Aimed at Male Drivers
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has teamed up with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in a seven-million-dollar nationwide advertising campaign aimed primarily at male drivers between the ages of 18-49. Young male drivers are involved in approximately 75% of all crossing accidents. The “Stop, Trains Can’t” advertisement will be focused in the 15 states identified as having the most dangerous crossings as well as states that made up 75 percent of the crossing accidents in 2015.
“Too many people are still taking unnecessary risks and needlessly paying with their lives,” said Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These deaths are preventable, and this ad campaign is a reminder for everyone that ignoring signage at railroad crossings or attempting to race or beat a train can have deadly consequences.”
Crossing deaths are preventable through education and awareness, the message of the new campaign is simple and on target: “STOP, trains can’t!”
In a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman urged investment in the aging Amtrak rail system.
“The time is now to invest in our aging assets,” Moorman said in prepared remarks. “More than ever, our nation and the traveling public rely on Amtrak for mobility, but the future of Amtrak depends on whether we can renew the cars, locomotives, bridges, tunnels, stations, and other infrastructure that allows us to meet these growing demands.”
Moorman pointed out that an investment in the infrastructure that makes up Amtrak will not only help better service passengers but will also contribute to creating jobs in several different areas, including construction and manufacturing as well as other jobs that would be outsourced across the nation.
Amtrak had a record year in 2016 with 31 million passengers and $2.2 billion in ticket revenue being reported. Moorman stated that with investments to modernize and improve the current operation things will continue to grow over time.
Elaine Chao sworn in as Secretary of Transportation
Elaine Chao was sworn into the office of Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017, by Vice President Mike Pence, replacing Anthony Foxx. The Senate confirmed her by a vote of 93-6.
Chao formally served under President George W. Bush as the Secretary of Labor during all eight years of his administration. She also served as deputy secretary at the Department of Transportation.
Top Democrat on the panel, Senator Bill Nelson from Florida, said: “I think we need Secretary Chao as someone who has the experience and who has common sense and that will be in the position to offer level-headed, good experience-based advice to the government going forward.”
In her first tweet after taking her new role, Secretary Chao said: “It is an honor to rejoin the extraordinary people of @USDOT and begin working to rebuild America’s infrastructure.”