SMART Transportation Division Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testified Nov. 13 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials regarding the future of Amtrak as members of Congress continue the reauthorization process for the national passenger carrier and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
He touched upon the topics of assault upon workers, Amtrak funding and having a labor member on the carrier’s board.
Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testifies before members of the U.S. House rail subcommittee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. At left behind Guy is SMART TD National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes and to the right behind Guy is Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity.
Guy called for Congress to increase the level of appropriations reserved for Amtrak so that the carrier can go forward as an important part in the groundwork of a multimodal transportation system in the United States.
“Congress should allow Amtrak to be America’s railroad and support their ability to maintain a qualified workforce that meets customers’ demands now and well into the future,” Guy told representatives on the subcommittee.
He said steps taken by legislators in the FAST Act, including the addition of three grants administered by the Federal Railroad Administration, have helped to increase momentum for improving Amtrak’s service.
“These grants are successful, and they work.”
But operationally, there are areas of concern — Guy urged representatives to preserve and protect Amtrak’s long-distance service, which had been in jeopardy of being axed last year — especially the Southwest Chief route — before legislators stepped in.
On the administrative side, Guy said the Amtrak Board of Directors should have a member from labor on it, mirroring what the Railroad Retirement Board does, Guy said. Often, the experiences of SMART TD members and other unionized workers who keep Amtrak running day to day can be enlightening on what to do and what not to do when running the railroad, he said.
“Passengers interact with our members on board trains,” Guy said. “We hear concerns and complaints … having a labor member at a board level will help Amtrak make decisions that could affect service.”
Guy was one of three labor representatives who discussed the carrier’s relationship with labor. Over the past year, Amtrak has engaged in what has been described by some as “union busting” behavior, especially as it concerns cuts to the jobs of unionized call-center and food-service workers, police officers and rural station agents.
“When you are reducing the workforce that’s in charge of inspections and fixing equipment and whatnot, it makes it hard to keep things in a state of good repair, regardless if new equipment is coming,” Guy said. “I wouldn’t want to see worker reductions to the point where safety is jeopardized. We don’t think it is, but that’s a path we wouldn’t want to see.”
Amtrak reported a positive fiscal 2019 with an increase in ridership, a decrease in operating loss and an increase in operating revenue, but subcommittee Chairman Dan Lipinski, who represents Illinois’ 3rd District, was highly critical of the carrier’s cuts that helped to achieve those results in his opening remarks.
“Amtrak clearly has decided that the way to prosperity is to have its workers pay for it,” Lipinski said. “This is not the way to run this railroad.”
Among the cuts were about 500 jobs at a call center in Riverside, Calif. About 350 of those jobs were later brought back at non-union sites.
“Amtrak used to be an enviable place to work,” said Jack Dinsdale, national vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, in criticizing the loss of those union jobs. “It was about union busting, period.”
Also testifying on labor’s behalf was Dan Regan, secretary of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
An update on the railroad industry’s implementation of positive train control (PTC) will be one of the major topics covered in the next meeting of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) scheduled 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 26, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.
The meeting will be at the National Association of Home Builders, 1201 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. Representatives from 29 member organizations, including SMART TD, will convene at the meeting, which is open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.
The agenda also will include remarks from FRA Administrator Ron Batory and committee reports from the Working Groups for Tourist and Historic Railroads; Track Standards; Passenger Safety; Part 225 Accident Reporting; Train Dispatcher Certification; and Signal Employees Certification and is subject to change, the Federal Register notice stated.
RSAC is a federal advisory committee to the FRA intended to develop railroad safety regulations through a consensus process.
More information about RSAC and a finalized agenda for the meeting will be posted on the RSAC website at least a week in advance of the meeting.
Disregarding comments by the SMART TD New York Legislative Board to the contrary, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has granted an exemption to Brookfield Asset Management and DJP XX LLC that clears the way for their acquisition of short-line/regional railroad operator Genesee & Wyoming.
Genesee & Wyoming controls Class II and III railroads in 41 states and, if considered collectively, its holdings qualify it as a Class I carrier with more than 13,000 track miles.
The notice, published in the Federal Register Nov. 1 after a 3-0 vote by the board, concludes a postponement of the $8.4 billion acquisition put forth by the STB in late July. The acquisition, when completed, will make G&W a privately held company.
Brookfield Asset Management owns and operates assets in the utilities, transport, energy and data infrastructure across North and South America, Asia Pacific and Europe while DJP XX LLC is a subsidiary of GIC, a global investment firm that manages Singapore’s foreign reserves.
In early September, an attorney representing New York State Legislative Director Samuel J. Nasca filed reply comments asserting that the notice of exemption should be rejected or revoked because of the magnitude and nature of the transportation involved.
Nasca’s filing expressed concern regarding the role of foreign interests, including GIC, which would own 27% of equity in DJP XX and has links to the government of Singapore, and was not listed on the exemption application to the STB. He also identified Brookfield as controlling rail investments in Brazil — more than 10,000 km of rail tracks and stated that GWI controls rail carriers that are located in other countries including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom and are not subject to Board jurisdiction.
Moreover, Nasca argued, employees could face negative ramifications if the deal went through.
“A number of the GWI carriers operate in or through New York State, and are represented by SMART/TD in collective (bargaining). Those GWI carriers not so represented by SMART/TD are nevertheless important for SMART/TD employees as such carriers interchange traffic with other GWI-represented carriers, or with other carriers outside the GWI family,” his filing stated. “Accordingly, SMART/TD employees stand to be adversely affected by Brookfield management decisions revising the structure of GWI or taking actions which may divert business to other units of the Brookfield organization.”
The board disregarded the concerns expressed for workers, about foreign interests and about the scale of the acquisition as well.
“SMART/TD-NY’s comments about the magnitude and nature of the transportation at issue do not support rejection of the notice or revocation of the exemption,” the board stated in the Federal Register notice.
STB member Marty Oberman, while voting to approve the exemption, did express some reservation about the magnitude of the exemption, stating in the Federal Register filing:
“This is by far the largest and most geographically diverse collection of railroads impacting the U.S. freight network ever to be processed as a class exemption under the Board’s existing regulations,” Oberman wrote. “In my opinion, this proceeding raises significant questions regarding whether transactions of this magnitude were contemplated when the class exemption regulations were adopted, and therefore raises questions as to whether it is appropriate for such major transactions to be eligible under those regulations in the first place.”
The proposed acquisition of G&W is expected to close by the end of 2019 or early 2020 pending review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
Most Railroad Retirement annuities, like Social Security benefits, will increase in January 2020 due to a rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the third quarter of 2018 to the corresponding period of the current year.
Cost-of-living increases are calculated in both the Tier I and Tier II benefits included in a Railroad Retirement annuity. Tier I benefits, like Social Security benefits, will increase by 1.6 percent, which is the percentage of the CPI rise. Tier II benefits will go up by 0.5 percent, which is 32.5 percent of the CPI increase. Vested dual benefit payments and supplemental annuities also paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) are not adjusted for the CPI change.
In January 2020, the average regular Railroad Retirement employee annuity will increase $36 a month to $2,875 and the average of combined benefits for an employee and spouse will increase $50 a month to $4,174. For those aged widow(er)s eligible for an increase, the average annuity will increase $20 a month to $1,428. However, widow(er)s whose annuities are being paid under the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001 will not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments until their annuity amount is exceeded by the amount that would have been paid under prior law, counting all interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable. Almost 52 percent of the widow(er)s on the RRB’s rolls are being paid under the 2001 law.
If a Railroad Retirement or survivor annuitant also receives a Social Security or other government benefit, such as a public service pension, any cost-of-living increase in that benefit will offset the increased Tier I benefit. However, Tier II cost-of-living increases are not reduced by increases in other government benefits. If a widow(er) whose annuity is being paid under the 2001 law is also entitled to an increased government benefit, her or his Railroad Retirement survivor annuity may decrease.
However, the total amount of the combined Railroad Retirement widow(er)’s annuity and other government benefits will not be less than the total payable before the cost-of-living increase and any increase in Medicare premium deductions.
The cost-of-living increase follows a Tier I increase of 2.8 percent in January 2019, which had been the largest in seven years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will announce Medicare Part B premiums for 2020 later this year, and this information is available at www.medicare.gov.
In late December the RRB will mail notices to all annuitants providing a breakdown of the annuity rates payable to them in January 2020.
Railroad Retirement annuitants subject to earnings restrictions can earn more in 2020 without having their benefits reduced as a result of increases in earnings limits indexed to average national wage increases.
Like Social Security benefits, some Railroad Retirement benefit payments are subject to deductions if an annuitant’s earnings exceed certain exempt amounts. These earnings restrictions apply to those who have not attained full Social Security retirement age. For employee and spouse annuitants, full retirement age ranges from age 65 for those born before 1938 to age 67 for those born after 1959. For survivor annuitants, full retirement age ranges from age 65 for those born before 1940 to age 67 for those born after 1961.
For those under full retirement age throughout 2020, the exempt earnings amount rises to $18,240 from $17,640 in 2019. For beneficiaries attaining full retirement age in 2020, the exempt earnings amount, for the months before the month full retirement age is attained increases to $48,600 in 2020 from $46,920 in 2019.
For those under full retirement age, the earnings deduction is $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings over the exempt amount. For those attaining full retirement age in 2020, the deduction is $1 for every $3 of earnings over the exempt amount in the months before the month full retirement age is attained.
When applicable, these earnings deductions are assessed on the Tier I and vested dual benefit portions of Railroad Retirement employee and spouse annuities, and the Tier I, Tier II, and vested dual benefit portions of survivor benefits.
All earnings received for services rendered, plus any net earnings from self-employment, are considered when assessing deductions for earnings. Interest, dividends, certain rental income or income from stocks, bonds or other investments are not considered earnings for this purpose.
Retired employees and spouses, regardless of age, who work for their last pre-retirement non-railroad employer are also subject to an additional earnings deduction in their Tier II and supplemental benefits of $1 for every $2 in earnings up to a maximum reduction of 50 percent. This earnings restriction does not change from year to year and does not allow for an exempt amount.
A spouse benefit is subject to reduction not only for the spouse’s earnings, but also for the earnings of the employee, regardless of whether the earnings are from service for the last pre-retirement non-railroad employer or other post-retirement employment.
Special work restrictions continue to be applicable to disability annuitants in 2020. The monthly disability earnings limit increases to $990 in 2020 from $950 in 2019.
Regardless of age and/or earnings, no Railroad Retirement annuity is payable for any month in which an annuitant (retired employee, spouse or survivor) works for a railroad employer or railroad union.
A letter co-signed by SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) President Larry Willis asked the United States’ chief trade representative to re-examine policies that leave American rail workers at a disadvantage.
The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), planned to be a trade pact to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), does not address certain issues covering cross-border traffic between Mexico and the U.S., the union leaders wrote.
Since 1931, Mexican railway companies have had a policy that they only employ Mexican rail workers. This policy has endured through the decades and was “enshrined” through NAFTA in the mid 1990s.
In the summer of 2018, Kansas City Southern began to allow Mexican crews to cross the U.S. border and operate within the country’s borders, drawing strong objections from both SMART TD and the TTD.
“Allowing workers from Mexico to operate in the United States while U.S. workers are prohibited from operating in Mexico is a direct and existential threat to the jobs of thousands of conductors and locomotive engineers represented by SMART TD,” the letter stated.
A reciprocal measure requiring U.S. crews to operate the trains was not included in the USMCA amid objections from the Mexican government, Ferguson and Willis stated.
“Without its inclusion, the agreement fails domestic rail workers and their sector, and further fails to uphold principles of parity between the U.S. and Mexico on the issue of rail service,” they wrote, calling upon Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to fix the disparity.
“SMART TD and TTD strongly agree with the Administration that NAFTA has failed working people and that the impacts of a trade agreement that was not written for their benefit are still being felt,” they stated. “We call on you to not abandon freight rail workers.”
For months now, your union has been collecting hundreds of reports from members of our and other rail unions that document instances when railroad technology doesn’t work as intended.
While carriers might see technology as a stepping-stone to more money and the eventual replacement of employees with full automation, we want to collect real-world data showing that sometimes these “improved” technologies are more of a stumbling block when not working as intended.
Data is being collected via a form on the SMART TD website directly linked at (www.smart-union.org/railroad-technology-event-report) or look for the red flashing button on right of the main page, then follow that link to report incidences involving Positive Train Control, Trip Optimizer/LEADER, DPU (distributed power), EOT/HTD’s or radio transmission failures among crew members when dealing with long trains.
The real-world data that members contribute helps our organization to formulate a plan to protect members and the general public and to ensure the safety of the nation’s infrastructure, and this information is being sought on a voluntary basis, said Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, who helped to create the report form.
“The railroads like to tout there is no data to support that two-person crews are safer than a one-person crew. The irony, however, is that the counter-point to their argument is also true — there is no data to support that one-person crews are any safer than two-person crews either,” he said. “Over the years [they] have purposefully chosen to not collect the data, despite having the ability to do so, because they know the truth will hurt their position.”
The way to combat this is by gathering reports from the people who are dealing directly with the situations created when the technology does not function as intended, Cassity said.
“By members submitting this very important information we are able to provide the one thing the railroads cannot or will not — data,” Cassity said. “And that data proves these technological safety overlay systems are not capable of replacing the human element, specifically two-person crews.”
Reports submitted through this form go to union safety leadership for collection. The reports are not a substitute for filling out a report to a carrier or to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
“The railroads have fired the first shot in this round of the crew-consist war, and we need all hands on deck, everyone doing their part to complete these reports,” Cassity said. “This data may very well just be what makes the difference.”
The AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD), in conjunction with SMART Transportation Division and 13 other unions associated with the railroad and aviation industries, filed suit in federal court in the District of Columbia against the National Mediation Board (NMB) regarding their recent rule that changes the decertification process.
SMART TD, TTD, and the other plaintiffs assert that the final rule, which was approved by the NMB over the summer in a 2-1 vote, violates the Railway Labor Act by adopting a new decertification procedure, including an “unjustified” two-year moratorium on employees seeking union representation after a decertification vote. The change is “an arbitrary and capricious departure from long-standing Board practice,” the complaint states.
The complaint also says that the NMB overstepped limitations set by Congress that have for eight decades governed the board’s jurisdiction to resolve representation disputes in the aviation and rail industries.
“This action is in excess of the Board’s limited jurisdiction and is a ‘gross violation’ of the Railway Labor Act and should be enjoined,” the complaint states.
“The NMB’s rule is an attempt by government officials to hand even more power to corporations at the expense of working people,” TTD President Larry Willis said after the NMB vote July 26. “Not only is this rule unnecessary, but it is ill-timed and tone deaf to the needs of aviation and rail workers, who face unprecedented pressure from industry giants.
“A union contract is the most effective tool workers have to make life better for themselves and their families. Yet, the two Republican board members supporting this decision just made it easier to decertify unions in the rail and aviation sectors and bar employees from being able to vote for union representation for two years after decertification.”
The NMB is comprised of Chair Linda A. Puchala, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, and members Gerald W. Fauth III and Kyle Fortson, who were both appointees of President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate in November 2017. Puchala was the dissenting vote.
Brothers and sisters of the SMART Transportation Division,
I wanted to take this opportunity to explain what the crew consist lawsuit that has been filed in federal court in Texas is about. From the questions we have received, it appears that there is some confusion.
The lawsuit, filed on October 3, 2019, by BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Grand Trunk Western, Norfolk Southern, Illinois Central, Union Pacific, and the Belt Railway Company of Chicago, attempts to challenge the crew consist moratoriums of various local agreements and force the Organization to bargain over crew consist on a national level in this upcoming round of national negotiations. As a bit of background, when the crew consist agreements were negotiated, the carriers agreed to a “moratorium” on negotiating over this topic. Under the Railway Labor Act, a moratorium serves to bar negotiations over topics for a defined period of time. The carrier is now insisting that we arbitrate the meaning of the moratorium provisions.
This is not the first time that the carriers have attempted to challenge the crew consist agreements they have entered into over the years. It seems that in each round of bargaining they raise this issue anew. And in each round, they have lost the argument. Although we have not yet been served with the lawsuit, we are ready to defend our agreements.
Interestingly, the lawsuit was filed on the same day we were holding the Association of General Chairpersons District 1 meeting. When notified of the suit, all 56 General Chairpersons, without exception, pledged to act in solidarity as we embark on the upcoming round of National Railroad contract talks. The signing of the resolution is but one example of the inseparability that we will exhibit going forward as we negotiate.
I have attached the lawsuit for your review, and I will keep you apprised as matters develop. With all the various media avenues that can be full of misinformation, I feel that it is extremely important that our members be aware of the facts of the situation.
President — Transportation Division
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced in a notice published in the Federal Register on Oct. 2 that it was renewing the charter of its Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee (MCSAC) for two years, effective Sept. 27.
The MCSAC was established to provide FMCSA with advice and recommendations on motor carrier safety programs and motor carrier safety regulations. Membership is composed of up to 25 experts from the motor carrier safety advocacy, safety enforcement, industry and labor sectors. They are appointed by the FMCSA administrator for two-year terms.
Current labor representatives on the committee are LaMont Byrd, a vice chairman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Bruce Hamilton, a vice president for the Amalgamated Transit Union; and Christopher Treml, director of construction training for the International Union of Operating Engineers.
As the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate an accident in Wyoming that killed two SMART TD members out of Local 446, it issued a pair of safety recommendations to Class I railroads and a recommendation to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association regarding train emergency brake communication.
Review and issue guidance as necessary for the inspection of end-of-railcar air hose configurations to ensure the air hose configuration matches the intended design. (R-19-41)
Review and revise your air brake and train handling instructions for grade operations and two-way end-of-train device instructions to include: monitoring locomotive air flow meters, checking the status of communication between the head-of-train and end-of train devices before cresting a grade, and the actions to take if the air pressure at the rear of the train does not respond to an air brake application. (R-19-42)
To the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association:
Alert your member carriers to (1) inspect the end-of-railcar air hose configurations to ensure the hose configurations match the intended design and (2) review and revise their air brake and train handling instructions for grade operations and two-way end-of-train device instructions to include: monitoring locomotive air flow meters, checking the status of communication between the head-of-train and end-of-train devices before cresting a grade, and the actions to take if the air pressure from the rear of the train does not respond to an air brake application. (R-19-43)
A contractor working with the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) on the board’s information technology initiatives, including RRB’s online services, is seeking feedback from active railroad workers and retirees that will direct its future plans.
Accenture has set a Sept. 20 deadline for responding to the anonymous and voluntary survey.
The RRB will use the results gained from the survey to help drive future strategic plans for online offerings that will assist railroad workers and retirees alike.