WINTER 2018 LEGISLATIVE REPORT

By Jessica Cole, 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Representative   

Greetings from your newly-elected Second and Third Vice Presidents. It is a formidable task to take up where Kathleen Bisbikis left off when she vacated this post to become BLET Auxiliary National President.  As the saying goes, “she left big shoes to fill.”

Your new legislative reports will have two sections, one submitted by me, which will cover about 50% of the recurrent and new national issues,along with state news from the eastern states. The other will be submitted by Becky Schneider, 3rd Vice President/Assistant National Legislative Rep., and will cover the remaining 50% or so of national issues, along with news from the western states.

It’s an impossible task to find everything that is potentially relevant, so we wholeheartedly invite submissions from members!!  Submit items to Jessica at jcts1987@gmail.com.

Midterm Election Recap

The 2018 Midterm Election drew a large and divided electorate across the country. Many positions, from governorships and Senate seats, to local and regional offices, were very close and heated races, with results not clear until the following day. 

Never let it be said that one vote doesn’t matter, because in the 2018 Midterms, it certainly did!

Overall, the end picture is cautiously encouraging for the BLET,whose position tends to agree with and thrive under Democratic policies. On the national stage, Republicans increased their majority in the U.S. Senate, but the House of Representatives gained a Democratic majority, insuring a potential balance for the GOP stranglehold on National politics. Overall, on a state and national level, many Teamster-friendly candidates came out swinging hard and won backseats lost in 2016, and workers made their voices known at the polls in record numbers, and it MATTERED!

The scourge of Right to Work legislation has been sweeping the country and threatens to become national law. Should this happen, most of the benefits we take for granted as railroad families will disappear, for without a strong Union, our contracts will be null and void.

Wisconsin was one of the key genesis states for Right to Work,with the very popular GOP Governor Scott Walker, a man funded mostly by out-of-state business moguls, reneging on his promise to not promote Right to Work after demonizing public sector workers and decimating their unions. Walker targeted Right to Work next and got that done too. But his stranglehold reign surprisingly ended in the 2018 Midterm. The man who couldn’t begin to beat him in 2014,State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers, won by a razor thin margin in a 90%voter turnout in 2018. This gives some encouragement for union minded folks and also proves the importance of never giving up the fight and never thinking one vote doesn’t matter. In the end, Walker and all the money behind him was taken out by a teacher, a member of the educational community he had attacked with special aggression. Karma?

 Retired BNSF Engineer Makes Good In 2018 Election

Fort Madison Democrat Jeff Kurtz secured a seat representing House District 83 in the Iowa Legislature Tuesday after defeating his Republican opponent.

Kurtz, a retired locomotive engineer for BNSF, came out ahead of Montrose Republican Jeff Reichman, a small business owner and reserve officer with the U.S. Marine Corps who works at Roquette America in Keokuk. Kurtz secured 60.58 percent of the district vote, compared to Reichman’s 39.29percent.

“I’m just an ordinary guy that has a lot of extra friends,” Kurtz said. “I had so much support during the race.”

Kurtz and Reichman were vying for a seat long held by Democratic Rep. Jerry Kearns of Keokuk, who announced in January he would not seek re-election this year.”

(Source:  The Hawkeye, November 7, 2018)

Safe Freight Act

The Safe Freight Act of 2017 is H.R. Bill 233 and prohibits the movement of trains with fewer than one certified engineer and one certified conductor.The 103 Democratic co-sponsors have been joined by 16 Republican co-sponsors who appreciate the dire safety concerns associated with one-person crews.

In the meantime, the never-ending profit motive driving carrier management has stirred up talk of autonomous crewless trains in the future, a truly terrifying thought, not just for safety reasons, but also for job security fears.

Autonomous passenger trains already operate routinely in places such as the U.K. and Japan, and an Australian mining company operates autonomous freight trains on a 60-mile stretch of track. Autonomous trains are not currently in operation in the U.S.

Safety concerns are many, including fears that the autonomous systems would be targets for hackers. In addition, no crew means no first responder on the scene of a wreck or a Haz Mat spill. Furthermore, the immense weight and speed of a freight train, combined with the sight distance range required for a human engineer to react to variables in a timely fashion, make the idea that a computer could do it as well or better seem quite dubious.

Right to Work

Spurred by the recent Supreme Court Janus decision, National Right to Work Act has gained a great deal of momentum since 2017, when H.R. 785 was introduced. In essence, this bill will financially starve unions into nonexistence. If unions disappear, all of the contractual benefits your union secures for you, from good healthcare to held-away pay, to seniority rights will also disappear.

This bill has 129 Republican co-sponsors and no Democratic co-sponsors. Much of the future success of this bill will hinge on the outcome of the 2018 midterm election.

On a state level, Ohio has a new fight brewing over Right to Work,with Republican-sponsored HB 53 entering hearings early in November, this despite the fact that Ohio’s electorate overwhelmingly defeated a similar proposal in 2011. Unions are putting up a good fight and it appears the bill may not go much further than initial hearings for the time being, but workers must not let their guard down.

Positive Train Control

Check the FRA website at fra.gov for a Positive Train Control Implementation Dashboard that shows the progress of many carriers on various parameters needed to be fully compliant.

The following article was published by The Transportation ReviewBoard in September 2018 as a nationwide overview of the general status of PTC Implementation:

PositiveTrain Control: Most Railroads Expect to Request an Extension, and Substantial Work Remains Beyond 2018

Forty railroads including Amtrak, commuter, and freight railroads are currently required by statute to implement positive train control (PTC), a communications-based system designed to slow or stop a train that is not being operated safely. PTC must be interoperable, meaning trains can operate seamlessly on the same PTC-equipped track, including “tenants” that operate on track owned by another “host” railroad. Although the deadline for PTC implementation is December 31, 2018, railroads may receive a maximum 2- year extension to December 31, 2020, if they meet certain statutory criteria. TheU.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review railroads’ PTC implementation progress. This statement by Susan Fleming, Director, Physical Infrastructure, discusses (1) railroads’ implementation progress and Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA’s) steps to assist them and (2) how railroads and FRA plan to approach the 2018 and 2020 deadlines. GAO analyzed railroads’ most recent quarterly reports covering activities through June 30, 2018; sent a brief questionnaire to all 40 railroads; and interviewed officials from FRA and 16 railroads, selected in part based on those identified as at-risk by FRA. In March 2018, GAO recommended FRA take steps to systematically communicate extension information to railroads and to use a risk-based approach to prioritize agency resources and workload. FRA has taken some steps to address these recommendations, such as recently communicating and clarifying extension requirements to all railroads during three symposiums, and GAO will continue to monitor FRA’s progress.R

Corporate Authors:

U.S.Government Accountability  Office 441 G Street, NW Washington,DC  United States  20548

FRA has awarded millions in grants to help railroads work toward compliance,but there are still numerous delays in getting this accident prevention technology in place across the country. Nonetheless, progress is being made.  Chicago-based passenger carrier Metra recently began revenue service demonstrations (RSDs) of its PTC system on the Rock Island District Line which runs from Chicago southwest to Joliet,Illinois. 

RSDs are the last step before fully implementing PTC and involve running some of the full-service trains with PTC engaged to see if the system is working.If the RSDs are successful, Metra targets full implementation of PTC in January 2019.

(Source:  Progressive Railroading, Published October 17, 2018)

Taxi/Transport

The most dangerous part of working for the railroad is not always on the rail. Unsafe crew transport taxis have been an issue for years,sometimes in the form of ill-maintained vehicles, and other times because of sleep deprived or impaired drivers.

Much of this issue has been dealt with on a state-by-state basis,but this leaves the obvious door open that a crew taxi company based out of a lenient state can be contracted by a carrier for work in a stricter state, and the more stringent safety laws will not necessarily carry over to the out-of-state taxi.

Progress has been made on a national level through carrier companies themselves. Union Pacific, for example, now gives employees the right to refuse transport in vehicles they deem unsafe or with drivers they believe to be impaired by sleep deprivation or other causes.

(Source:  Wisconsin State Legislative Board)

Union Pacific Job Cuts

In an effort to mitigate expected 2019 shortfalls versus projected profit targets, Union Pacific plans to cut 475 jobs in the fourth quarter, with more cuts likely in the future. The reductions will be across the board and will affect both union and nonunion workers and are expected to continue through 2020. 85% of Union Pacific’s 42,000 employees are union members represented by 14 unions.

(Source: Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2018)

National Mediation Board and Railroad Retirement Board Funding to Remain Steady

The “minibus” budget bill signed by a President Trump will leave 2018 funding levels in place for the National Mediation Board and Railroad Retirement Board going forward into 2019.

The National Mediation Board (NMB) handles dispute resolution between carriers and rail unions through mediation and arbitration. A back log of unresolved Section 3 cases has resulted in closure of unfunded, unresolved cases more than three years old. The board has been awarded a boost in funding to nearly $14 million in 2018 to try to address the backlog, and some closed but unresolved cases may be eligible for reopening if the aged-out party writes a letter to NMB.

NMB had 6400 open cases at the end of October 2018.

Railroad Retirement Board will receive $123.5 million, —$113.5 million to be used for administrative expenses and the $10 million remainder to support efforts to upgrade its information technology system.

(Source:  SmartUnion, published October 29, 2018)

Random Drug Test Increase

Due to a 2017 increase in percentage of positive test results, the Federal Transit Authority will step up the minimum number of random drug screenings from 25% to 50% for covered employees effective January 1, 2019.

Alcohol testing is not affected by increased screening scrutiny and will remain at 10%.

(Source:  https://www.transit.dot.govn)

Western States Regional News from the Members

Sister Cheri Brown reports that her home state of Minnesota had a 64% voter turnout, 2.6 Million people, which is the largest midterm turnout in Minnesota history. Democrats took control of the House but the GOP still holds the Senate.  According to Cheri, many friends of Labor were elected and she is hopeful they will push rail issues forward.

Thank you to the delegates and national officers for their vote of confidence in electing me to the office of 3rd VP/ANLR. Keeping up with legislation as it pertains to railroaders can be a lot of work, but a totally worthwhile endeavor. As Jessica’s assistant, I will be reporting on issues pertaining to Amtrak, Railroad Retirement and Cross Border Train issues in addition to various issues as they arise west of the Mississippi. I look forward to fulfilling this office in the manner it was first imagined and providing assistance to our National Legislative Representative in keeping our members informed and up to date.  If any member has information they would like to contribute, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

By Becky Schneider, 3rd Vice President/Assistant National Legislative Representative

AMTRAK

With the election now behind us and control of the House of Representatives coming in January, we are hopeful that we can see progress made in infrastructure improvements. Many Democratic representatives have tagged this issue among several others as issues on which they could work with the President. Connecting America, not just by highways and airports, but also by rail, would provide a much-needed service, especially for rural Americans.Amtrak’s long-distance train, the “Empire Builder,” that travels between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, through the Big-Sky Country and most of the Lewis & Clark Trail, is a prime example of how much train service is needed in the “fly over” part of our great Nation. At their recent Fourth National Convention, the BLET delegates endorsed a resolution of their strong support of Amtrak and against any attempts to downgrade service or eliminate it completely.

As reported by now National President Kathleen Bisbikis inthe Autumn Newsletter, the Senate passed a “mini-bus” spending package, which included Amtrak funding. The bill was referred to conference committee to reconcile the differences in spending between the House and Senate bills. Hopefully,the committee will be able to reconcile the bill during the remaining lame duck session. House conferees are Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Aderhold (R-AL), Simpson (R-ID),Calvert (R-CA), Cole (R-OK), Diaz-Balart R-FL), Graves (R-GA), Young (R-IA),Rutherford (R-FL), Lowey (D-NY), Price (D-NC), Bishop (D-GA), McCollum (D-MN),Quigley (D-IL) and Pingree (D-ME). Senate conferees are Murkowski (R-AK), Collins (R-ME), Lankford (R-OK),Hoeven (R-ND), Shelby (R-AL), Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Udall (D-NM), Reed (R-RI),Coons (D-DE), Merkley (D-OR) and Leahey (D-VT). If one of these representatives is from your District or State, please let them know that we support HR 6147, especially as it relates to transportation.

Also included in this bill is a passenger route near and dear to my heart – the Southwest Chief. As a young girl, I rode this route many a mile with my grandparents and while its funding is just a small portion of the funding requested, HR 6147 would preserve Amtrak service over the entire route from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Congress averted the last government shutdown in September,but of course, it wasn’t a permanent fix for this fiscal year. There are agencies such as Homeland Security that still require funding prior to December 7. 

Railroad Retirement

The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) issued two news releases in October. The first addressed the increase in benefits, and the second pertained to an earnings limit increase, both for 2019. The Tier I (our Social Security Equivalent benefit) will increase 2.8%, and Tier II benefits will goup by 0.9%. (Note: Vested dual benefits and supplemental annuities are not adjusted for the Consumer Price Index increase). The Board indicates that the average retired railroader’s annuity will increase $60 a month and the average combined employee and spouse benefit will increase $86. 

Just as when Railroad Retirement Reform was enacted in 2001, there are still widow(er)s whose current annuity payment exceeds the amount due after being recalculated under the 2001 formula. Until the formula amount exceeds the benefit currently received, there will not be any adjustment. According to the RRB, 52% of the widow(er)s are affected by this. Medicare Part B premiums for 2019 are also increasing slightly to $135.50 from $134 for most retirees. (Note: Cost of Living increases prior to 2001 are the reason benefit payments are still trying to catch up).

Earning restrictions for 2019, which apply to retirees who have not reached full retirement age under Social Security (65 for those born prior to 1938, and it inches up from there), exempt earnings are $17,640, an increase of $600 in earnings exemption. Earnings from interest, dividends,certain rental income, or other investments are not considered earnings under the restrictions. There are special work restrictions that continue to be applicable to disability annuitants next year. The monthly disability earnings limit increased by $30 to $950. For more detailed information, please visit www.rrb.gov for their list of FAQs or contact your regional RRB office.

Gary Faley, National Legislative Representative for the National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees (NARVRE), sent out an alert about the “Know the Lowest Price Act of 2018,” S.2553, signed into law on October 18, 2018.  According to Mr. Faley, this “legislation stops private insurers from using so-called gag orders that ‘restricts’ pharmacies from offering customers the same drug but at a lower price if they paid out of pocket” instead of with a co-pay. For example, if your co-pay was $20 and the price of the medication without the co-pay was $8, the pharmacist was prohibited from sharing that information. Twenty-five states had already made that practice illegal, but this bill will now save the entire nation from this misdeed.

Note to all our readers:  Please send your state and regional news to keep this section interesting!