Legislative Update August 2013

Passenger Rail Supporters Help Beat Back Anti-Amtrak Amendments

Many thanks to all BLET members, spouses, and their families, as well all passenger rail supporters across the nation, who took the time to reach out to their members of Congress urging them to defeat the amendment presented in the House this last week by Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) to zero out Amtrak’s funding. The amendment was defeated on a voice vote, with members from both sides speaking up in support of the many benefits of passenger trains. Other anti-Amtrak amendments failed to gather enough momentum to even come to the floor for a vote. The Senate is also rallying against the amendment proposed by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to eliminate food and beverage on Amtrak trains and there’s a possibility that Flake’s amendment won’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

This is all good news; however, the bad news is that Congress continues to be very dysfunctional. House leaders have pulled the Republican-created transportation and housing appropriations bill from the floor, unable to marshal enough Republican votes to get it passed. Under the bill, even without the Broun amendment, Amtrak funding would have been slashed by one-third and high performance rail grants eliminated, among other cuts. The bill’s severe cuts to transportation and housing programs guaranteed zero Democratic votes, while a combination of about 40 Republicans apparently were set to vote “no,” including moderates who rejected the bill as too extreme and fiscal ultraconservatives who tend to oppose all appropriations.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) reacted to the House proceedings this way: “With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted three months ago. Thus I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration—and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts—must be brought to an end.” So, even if the Senate passes its bill, there won’t be any clear path to make that bill into law.

This sets up an uncertain future with the next key dates being the start of the fiscal year on October 1, and the next debate about raising the debt ceiling later in the fall; however, we must not allow these obstacles to stop us. The past few weeks, and the all-too-numerous attempts to eliminate Amtrak service, have shown that our work is more necessary than ever. So let’s continue to keep the pressure on until the passenger rail system our country so desperately needs is fully funded and fully functional.

Senate Confirms President Obama’s Recess Appointments

Richard Cordray Appointment to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Confirmed:

On July 17, the Senate finally confirmed the appointment of Richard Cordray as the Director of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFCB). As you may remember Mr. Cordray’s appointment was one of several made by President Obama on January 4, 2012, under the Recess Appointment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The President also appointed three new members to the vacant positions on the National Labor Relations Board on that same date. Until last month, none of these appointments had been confirmed by the Senate.

The vote to confirm Cordray’s appointment had been blocked by Republicans for almost two years in an attempt to weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which is the law that established the CFPB and charged the agency to regulate and protect consumers’ financial products from student loans, to mortgages, to credit cards. GOP politicians contended that the CFPB had too much power and sought changes including yearly Congressional approval of the agency’s budget and the replacement of its director with a board.

In explaining why 12 Republican senators finally joined 54 Democrats to approve Mr. Cordray’s appointment, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), told The Wall Street Journal that some Republicans had realized that “maybe” it wasn’t right to hold up a qualified nominee because you don’t like the law.

The CFPB was first proposed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2007 in an article that appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. The Board was then created in 2011 following the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed as a response to the financial crisis of 2007–08. The creation of this agency stands as one of the biggest and clearest victories yet won in the struggle for fundamental reform of the financial system. In its short life, the CFPB has already:

  • Moved to rid the mortgage market of loans designed to self-destruct.
  • Shielded military families against various financial scams.
  • Warned auto lenders against practices that jack up the price of credit for African-Americans, Latinos, women, or seniors.
  • Returned nearly half a billion dollars to consumers cheated by credit card companies.
  • Begun to tackle a host of other problems, including predatory payday loans, excessive bank overdraft fees, abusive debt collection practices, and the plight of students and families trapped in high-cost private education loans.

Following Cordray’s confirmation, Senator Warren stated: “The political stalemate is over; there is no doubt the consumer agency will survive beyond the crib.”

National Labor Relations Board Appointments Confirmed:

On July 30, the Senate voted to confirm all of the three appointments made by President Obama to the National Labor Relations Board on January 4, 2012. For the first time in nearly a decade, the NLRB will have five full members—three Democrats and two Republicans—all confirmed by the Senate. This vote removes the air of uncertainty that has plagued NLRB actions for some time.  One effort that may particularly benefit from the confirmation of five full members is the rulemaking activity on the union election process, which the NLRB had previously left unfinished.

This Labor Day, 80 million private sector workers will continue to have the protections of federal law and the only agency that can enforce workplace rights will be fully

functional. Now that’s reason to celebrate! The five NLRB members are Democrats Mark Pearce, Nancy Schiffer, and Kent Hirozawa, and Republicans Harry Johnson and Phil Miscimarra.

Court Case on Recess Appointments Still Pending

The confirmation of these appointments, however, does not change the fact that the issue of President Obama’s recess appointments is still moving through the court system. Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., struck down those appointments, saying the U.S. Senate was not in recess at the time of the appointments. Similar rulings have followed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will hear arguments in the case.

Court Ruling on Inward Facing Cameras in Locomotive Cabs

On July 25, the United States District Court in Shreveport, Louisiana, ruled that the decision by Kansas City Southern Railway (KCSR) to install two inward-facing cameras in the cabs of its locomotives (see May 2013 update athttp://www.bletauxiliary.net/Legislative%20Update%20May%2013.htm) presents a “minor” dispute under the Railway Labor Act, thereby paving the way for the railroad to install the cameras immediately. Under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, Unions are prevented from exercising self-help over minor disputes.

The court ruled that the Carrier had an arguable contractual justification for its actions based on: (1) the Carrier’s existing use of stationary surveillance cameras in train yards and other locations, (2) inward-facing cameras in crew vans, and (3) procedures for monitoring and recording phone calls between train crew employees and crew management regarding reporting to work. The judge who authored the Opinion also held that it was “not frivolous to argue that the safety challenges posed by employees using personal electronic devices on the job necessitate the camera and review system proposed by KCSR. “

Following the determination that the case was a “minor” dispute, the Unions argued for a “status quo” injunction pending resolution of the dispute before an arbitrator, but the judge denied that argument. She did, however, explain that “at the end of the day, the Unions may prevail regarding interpretation of the [Collective Bargaining Agreement].”

BLET National President Dennis Pierce expressed disappointment over both decisions and vowed that the Union would keep up the fight and will continue to assist the KCSR General Chairmen in their struggle. He stated that the Union will do its utmost “to prove to an arbitrator that this outrageous intrusion in the lives of locomotive engineers and trainmen is well beyond what the contract allows KCSR to do.”

BLET Denounces One-Person Train Operations

On July 6, a runaway train on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway plowed through a small Quebec town, killing an estimated 50 people. That train was operated by a one-person crew—an engineer. Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway owns 510 miles of track in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec. It has a fleet of 26 locomotives and runs 15 trains daily, according to its website. This railroad has a long history of accidents in Canada, according to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, which shows 129 accidents, including 77 derailments—some of them minor—since 2003. The BLET represents train and engine service employees on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Short Line Railroad in the United States and has unsuccessfully fought the practice of using a one-person crew on this railroad since it began several years ago. Following this tragic accident, the BLET National issued a statement on July 19, 2013, in which BLET National President Dennis Pierce denounces one-person train operations and calls on “the White House, the Congress, and any regulatory body of the federal government with the authority to do so to take action to protect the safety of railroad operating crews and the public by putting an end, once and for all, to the inherently unsafe single-person operation of freight trains.”

To read the full statement of BLET President Dennis Pierce on this important topic, please see the BLET Newsflash at:

http://www.BLE-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5458.

I urge you to please read this important newsflash in its entirety. As President Pierce points out in his statement, there are only two ways to end one-person train operations: 1) federal laws or regulations that outlaw this dangerous practice, and, 2) collectively-bargained contract language that requires two crew members on every train. Please encourage your members of Congress to take action to protect the safety of railroad operating crews and the public by putting an end to the unsafe practice of single-person operation of freight trains.

New Website for Health & Welfare Benefits Information

A new website is available to eligible railroad employees and their dependents. This website replaces the Railroad Information Depot website. For now, if you try to access the Railroad Information Depot website, you will be redirected to the “Your Track to Health” website.

The information on this new website gives members information from key providers, such as Aetna, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare, Express-Scripts, MetLife, and EyeMed. When you see the “Your Track to Health” brand used on communications and in materials, please pay attention as the information being provided is important in helping you and your dependents better understand and optimize your health and welfare benefits.

The “Your Track to Health” website will provide several new features in the coming months, including: (1) Secure sign on, which allows eligible employees and their dependents who are enrolled in the health and welfare benefits to securely access and manage personal benefits information online; and

(2) an email registration and subscription center, which allows eligible employees and their dependents to opt-in to receive important benefits, enrollment and health/wellness information, alerts and updates via email. The subscription center is where you can update and manage your email communications preferences.