Assault on Unions
The recent attack on the middle class that is taking place in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, and other states is making headlines around the nation and beyond.
On Saturday, February 26, over 70,000 people converged in the Wisconsin State Capitol to demonstrate against the reform bill being pushed by Governor Scott Walker that would strip public sector unions of most collective bargaining rights in areas of healthcare coverage, pensions, and other benefits. Supporters of organized labor and the working people of America are joining in rallies in other states across the nation to show solidarity with the workers in Wisconsin and to protest the assault on workers’ rights.
Walker has been called a “puppet for big-donor corporate sponsors” who are determined to depress the working classes. Democratic lawmakers have said they and union members would agree to financial concessions that Governor Walker wants in exchange for workers keeping their collective bargaining rights, but Walker said he wasn’t willing to budge, and he expected the bill to pass as is. He says he needs to eradicate collective-bargaining laws to balance the budget in Wisconsin, but some say that is a pretext to remove from the political scene the only organizations (unions) that can stand up to multinational corporations and wealthy right-wing groups to protect the rights and interests of the dwindling middle class and the rapidly growing lower class in our nation.
Walker has been accused of creating a false budget deficit by forcing through legislation in January that created $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups. Then he announced a budget deficit of $137 million and demanded concessions from public sector union employees to offset the cost of the deficit.
In Topeka, Kansas, union members who showed up to protest House Bill 2130 were kicked out of the State House on February 24. House Bill 2130 would ban unions from making paycheck deductions for political activities and prohibit public employee unions from endorsing candidates. The bill was approved 75-46 with only Republican support and will now go to the Senate for consideration. Union leaders said the bill is an attack on the ability of workers to organize and participate as a group in the political process and it is said it is the latest example of how Republicans are trying to neutralize unions at the legislative level in various states, including Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana.
BLET National President Dennis Pierce urged BLET members to join him at the “Rally for Ohio’s Middle Class” on Tuesday, March 1, in Columbus, Ohio, to protest the ongoing attacks against public sector unions and middle class Americans. IBT General President Hoffa also attended the rally, which was organized by the Ohio Democratic Party to show opposition for Senate Bill 5, which would basically destroy public sector unions. Ohio Governor John Kasich cites budge crisis as a reason to pass the bill; however, even the bill’s sponsor Sen. Shannon Jones, admits that the bill is unlikely to have a significant effect on the deficit.
As the gulf between the rich and the poor in this country grows wider every day, we are left wondering if we are moving from a democracy to an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a form of government in which the political power effectively rests with a small number of people, generally those who are the most powerful, either by wealth, military strength, ruthlessness, or political influence. It is a government by the rich for the rich. With the vastly increasing income disparities and the influence of unrestrained corporate money on elections as a result of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission, could the U.S. be on a trajectory of oligarchy? Some have called the Wisconsin situation tantamount to “class warfare,” with tax cuts for wealthy business owners while middle-class workers are taking pay and benefit cuts and facing the loss of labor rights. Let’s just hope, as one Minnesota teacher states, that theWisconsin battle will become the “national rebirth of the labor movement” and that workers “will not allow this to turn into a nation where it’s everyone for themselves.”
Risk Reduction Program
On February 6, the BLET and six other rail unions submitted comments to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regarding implementation of a Risk Reduction Program (RRP) that was mandated under Section 103 of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The unions stressed that it was the intent of Congress to include labor organizations in the creation of the RRP; however, the FRA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on December 8, 2010, that allows railroads to unilaterally submit their own plans without the input of labor.
In their comments, the unions pointed out that railroads have been allowed to police their own safety and to operate with a punitive system for employees for far too long. They went on to state that RRPs must require labor-management consensus, which was what Congress intended in their mandate, and that they should be scientifically based and data driven.
The employees are the best source of information regarding safety and they must be able to report safety concerns without fear of repercussions. BLET National President Dennis Pierce stressed that “both good faith challenges and strong whistleblower protections must be part of the regulations.”
With regard to fatigue, which is probably the most critical safety factor for operating employees, the labor organizations urged the FRA to require 10 hours of prior notification as part of the RRP. President Pierce stated that: “FRA acknowledges that knowing with certainty when you will next go to work is the strongest fatigue mitigation tool available and will virtually eliminate acute fatigue as a safety issue for operating employees.”
Improved training for all rail workers in order to keep up with rapid changes in technology was also called for by the unions.
Passenger Rail/High Speed Rail
The continuing rise in ridership on current passenger rail lines in the last 15 months demonstrates a growing demand for passenger rail service and the need for a national intercity passenger rail system. However, financial support for existing rail systems, as well as the proposed development of High Speed Rail (HSR) in our nation, has become a highly politicized issue with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents expressing varying levels of support. A continuing resolution, i.e., a means of funding the government until a full budget is passed, that was introduced by the House Appropriations Committee on February 11, proposes major spending cuts in discretionary spending, including railway-impacted cuts of $18 million for Clean Coal Technology, $1 billion for High-Speed Rail, and $224 million for Amtrak.
In the wee hours of the morning on February 17, an amendment to the continuing resolution was offered by Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX), which would have reduced Amtrak’s capital funding by $446.9 million. Our BLET Training and Education Department was conducting a legislative workshop in Washington, D.C., that week and, at the conclusion of the training class on Wednesday, class attendees (including the BLET Auxiliary’s Iowa State Legislative Representative, Rachael Grimes) and other BLET officers and members were scheduled to lobby on Capitol Hill on Thursday, February 17. Thanks in part to the early morning actions of our BLET and Auxiliary members, the amendment failed in a 250-176 vote taken at 11:14 a.m. BLET President Dennis Pierce praised these members, stating: “This kind of action shows how effective our legislative department can be and also that we can make our voices heard in Congress if we work together.”
Just days before the Continuing Resolution was introduced, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama Administration is calling for a $53 billion spending plan over the next six years on rail infrastructure projects. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) have been highly critical with regard to the plan; however, they have both said that they will push the Administration’s initiative to give 80 percent of Americans access to high speed rail in the next 25 years, allowing travelers to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.
In spite of their criticisms, Representative Shuster recently pledged to fight for the Northeast Corridor project, saying he believes it is good for the country, could be profitable, and its success will encourage all of America in the various corridors across the country to follow suit; and Representative Mica has asked for “robust” funding targets for rail projects in the federal highway bill. Both congressmen, however, have warned the Obama Administration to seek more private investments to help pay for the projects.
Following the first $10.5 billion in Administration rail grants, Shuster and Mica have criticized the way the grants were handled, stating that the Federal Railroad Administration is not a capable grant agency and should not be involved in the selection of high speed rail projects. They have accused the Administration of squandering limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, and they plan to investigate how the funding decisions were made.
In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has joined Ohio’s Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker in rejecting federal incentives for high speed rail in his state. On February 16, Gov. Scott rejected the Obama Administration’s $2.4 billion in HSR funding to construct an 84-mile line to connect Tampa and Orlando, stating that Florida taxpayers would be “on the hook” for possible construction cost overruns, that ridership and revenue projections are overly optimistic, and that the state would have to repay the federal government all of the $24 billion if the project fails. Following Governor Scott’s announcement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with him to discuss the project and gave the Governor an additional week to review the agreement with those who crafted it and to consult with his staff and Department of Transportation officials. Scott, however, remains unconvinced that there is no risk to taxpayers.
Florida’s GOP-led state legislature has spent the last two years working to secure the federal funding and many in the state of Florida are calling Scott’s decision a huge mistake. There have been some rumblings that Scott may face a possible lawsuit contending that he has overstepped his authority in this situation and arguing that a law passed by the legislature during a special session in 2009 compels Scott to pursue the high speed rail project. Meanwhile, states across the northeast, including Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland have sent letters to Secretary LaHood asking for the rejected funding to go to rail projects in their states.
On the opposite side of the country, Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has stated that “Californians are already doing their part to invest in and develop a fast, clean, and low-cost transportation system, and we are pleased to have the partnership of our federal government.” Construction on California’s high speed rail system is scheduled to begin in 2012 and will create nearly 100,000 jobs over five years with the federal funding already awarded.
In an online Harris Poll conducted among 2,566 adults in January 2011, only 35 percent of those living in one of the proposed high-speed rail corridors said they are aware of a high speed rail project in their state, with approximately 45 percent unsure. When asked if they would consider using high-speed rail, 66 percent said they would consider using it for pleasure, but only 33 percent for business. Location of train stations, overall trip time, and safety were the primary factors those polled would consider before choosing to utilize HSR. With regard to funding for HSR, 64 percent say they support using state funding, and 62 percent support using federal funds. With gas prices on the rise again and airline travel becoming more complicated and time consuming due to security issues, American consumers may be looking for travel alternatives.
Positive Train Control (PTC)
On February 8, 2011, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced legislation (S. 301) to reduce the number of miles over which PTC must be implemented. Hutchison states that because traffic patterns for shipping toxic materials are being revised, at least 10,000 route miles that were used to move hazardous materials in 2008 are no longer expected to be used for that purpose in 2015. This comes following a meeting in January 2011 in which railroad CEOs met with Obama Administration officials to discuss how railroads are concentrating movements of toxic inhalation hazard materials on fewer miles of track and why the PTC mandate should be revised to address traffic patterns projected for 2015 rather than those that existed when the rail safety act was enacted in 2008.