Amtrak’s financial situation and the freight rail industry’s continued use of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices were the focus of a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Oct. 21.
Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn repeated his plea for almost $5 billion in emergency funding to help the nation’s passenger carrier weather the continued downturn in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The carrier has made drastic long-distance service cuts, going from daily to three trips per week on many routes. Furloughs for almost 2,000 Amtrak employees are scheduled to take effect in November.
“Virtually all of the CARES Act money has been spent,” Flynn told the committee. “These workforce adjustments are essential with current financial funding.”
A number of legislative actions, including the HEROES Act and the INVEST in America Act, while passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, have been stalled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP-controlled Senate. The emergency funding provided by such legislation would help the carrier rebound, Flynn said.
“Once the pandemic eases, Amtrak plans to grow,” he said.
A second panel featured a discussion of PSR.
Rudy Gordon, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, expressed concerns from a shipper perspective about the redeployment of furloughed railroad workers, saying that he fears delays in service and shipments on the part of rail carriers when the economy rebounds.
PSR has caused “a tipping point” at the expense of customer service, Gordon said, and said that if rail service erodes further at the expense of the carriers obtaining lower operating ratios (ORs) that the Surface Transportation Board should intervene.
“Across the sector, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, threatening both the health and livelihoods of employees,” Willis stated. “At the same time, freight railroads, at the insistence of Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers, have pursued operating practices that undermine basic tenets of rail safety, ask frontline workers to do more with less, and threaten the reliable and efficient customer service that should be the hallmark of this industry.”
The lone labor representative invited to testify in person was Dennis Pierce, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference.
Other industry stakeholders appearing were:
Paul Tuss, executive director, Bear Paw Developing Corporation and Member, Montana Economic Developers Association
Frank Chirumbole, vice president global supply chain, Olin Corporation on behalf of American Chemistry Council
Kent Fountain, chairman, National Cotton Council
Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Railroads
U.S. rail unions have united in an effort to overturn the sequestration of Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) benefits that was enacted by a GOP-held Congress during the Obama administration and continues to reduce the unemployment and sickness benefits of railroaders nearly a decade later.
A large bloc of the unions are represented by AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD), of which the SMART Transportation Division is a member.
A letter to U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown of Ohio sent by the union coalition requested that they jointly co-sponsor language consistent with the HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) to eliminate RUIA benefits from sequestration by amending the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 to include RUIA among the other various programs that are not subject to sequestration. Portman, a Republican out of Cincinnati, is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that will make a decision on sequestration.
“Unlike the average U.S. worker, railroad employees do not receive unemployment benefits through state-administered unemployment insurance programs. Instead, unemployed railroaders receive these benefits through the RUIA program, which is administered by the United States Railroad Retirement Board (RRB),” TTD President Larry Willis said. “As a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, RUIA (benefits) are subject to sequestration. No state unemployment insurance benefits in the country are subject to this unfair treatment.”
RUIA unemployment and sickness benefits are sequestered at 5.9%, and have been subject to reduction for nine years. These rates are adjusted when the federal sequestration is recalculated yearly.
Railroaders are urged to call Portman at (202) 224-3353 to tell him to exclude RRB sickness and unemployment benefits from those reductions.
Dear Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and Leader McCarthy:
On behalf of America’s public transportation industry and its frontline employees who operate and maintain public transit and commuter rail systems across the country every day, we urge you to provide $16.0 billion in immediate, desperately needed supplemental funding to keep our transit and commuter rail systems safe and operational in the months to come, and to prioritize that funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Across the country, public transportation systems and their employees are going to extraordinary measures and are placing themselves at great personal risk to protect the health and safety of their riders, while continuing to ensure that the public’s access to jobs, food, and other critical services are not brought to a halt. However, the extraordinary direct costs and revenue losses resulting from the impacts of COVID-19 are placing an incredible strain on our ability to continue providing this critical public service to Americans.
As highlighted by the American Public Transportation Association, these emergency funds are absolutely vital to maintain essential services such as paratransit services for individuals with disabilities; public transportation for health care workers, law enforcement, first responder, and other safety personnel; and Medicaid recipients who receive medical transportation for kidney dialysis, cancer treatments, and other critical care. Without these funds, the overwhelming majority of public transit agencies will be required to suspend or drastically curtail services. They simply cannot wait for a fourth or fifth round of emergency funding.
Please know that labor and management stand together during this difficult time. We respectfully urge you to provide not only the emergency financial assistance that this national crisis demands, but to do it now to ensure that one of the most important lifelines for essential services in our communities is not stripped away in this national crisis.
Thank you for your consideration.
Amalgamated Transit Union
American Public Transportation Association
Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Transportation Communications Union (TCU-IAM)
Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
Transport Workers Union of America
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.
SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich supports a rapid resolution to the partial federal government shutdown and fully endorses this message from AFL-CIO TTD President Larry Willis that was sent to U.S. representatives.
January 10, 2019
End this Unnecessary and Harmful Government Shutdown
On behalf of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), I urge you to pass H.R. 267, the FY 2019 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bill and end the partial government shutdown by passing the remaining spending bills. Another day cannot pass without federal workers returning to their paid work.
As the country approaches the third week of a government shutdown, roughly 800,000 government employees are either working without pay or furloughed with no end in sight. Those numbers do not include the thousands of federal contractors going without pay and who will not likely be retroactively compensated for their loss of work. This Friday, hundreds of thousands of federal workers will miss their first paycheck of the year. This is no longer a theoretical discussion of the effects of a shutdown. Facing post-holiday bills, many workers will have to decide whether they can put gas in their car, pay the bills, or meet childcare or medical expenses. Already, thousands are beginning to apply for unemployment.
Simultaneously, shuttered agencies like the Department of Transportation (DOT) are unable to fulfill their mandates. Many of DOT’s grant making operations have been closed, forcing local and state transportation officials to halt or slow transit, rail, and even road projects until federal funding is guaranteed. In Oklahoma alone, 45 highway projects worth $137 million will be delayed. If the shutdown continues, New York City’s public transit system is expected to lose $150 million per month. Worse, state transportation agencies across the country may be forced to cut maintenance, reduce service, or furlough state workers within their transportation systems to make up for the lapse in federal funding.
The high safety and security standards that we demand and require of our transportation network are also being undermined during this government shutdown. Nearly all staff at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been furloughed – stalling accident investigations and causing modal safety recommendations to languish. At the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), critical aviation safety inspectors and systems specialists are prevented from doing the important work of keeping our skies safe. Air traffic controllers are working without pay, and their training academies have been shuttered, further exacerbating a staffing crisis that has plagued this workforce for too long. Furthermore, federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers are reporting to work assignments that are often understaffed and are facing the added stress of not being paid, through no fault of their own.
TTD’s 32 affiliate unions represent workers in all modes of transportation. We know that consistent and strong federal investment in our transportation network not only keeps us safe, but also spurs economic growth and job creation for all Americans, expands the middle class, and creates mobility options in communities across the country. But these benefits are jettisoned when we halt funding for critical transportation accounts and bring uncertainty to an industry and sector that is so critical to our country. While H.R. 267 and the other spending bills being considered this week may not offer the funding levels we or others would prefer, it should offer a bipartisan compromise framework to get federal employees back to work.
We implore you to end this partial government shutdown now and allow federal workers to go back to serving the American people. On behalf of transportation labor, I urge you to pass H.R. 267 and reopen the nine federal agencies by passing the remaining spending bills.
Sincerely, Larry I. Willis
Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO