As President Joe Biden appeared Oct. 25 at the New Jersey Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, N.J., it was SMART Transportation Division New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams (GCA-770), a New Jersey Transit engineer, who set the stage for the president’s speech.
SMART-TD New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams introduces President Joe Biden at the NJT Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny on Oct. 25.
Williams, the legislative representative of Local 800, a member of our union since February 2017 and a fourth-generation railroader, is a native of New Jersey with three children. His 25-year rail career began as a diesel mechanic in the 1990s, and he became an engineer in 1999. He’s also risen to become vice chairperson of his GCA.
In his introduction of Biden, Williams thanked N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy and N.J. Transit’s Kevin Corbett for their work in helping NJT improve service as well as U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski for his work on Congressional infrastructure efforts in the U.S. House.
“I personally believe that the current infrastructure bill is important to New Jersey Transit rail operations, the residents of New Jersey and our neighboring states,” Williams said. “The funding would rebuild and modernize our aging transportation network. The rehabilitation of our system will help to preserve and create new railroad jobs.”
Improvements to stations funded by the infrastructure effort also would remove impediments to access for N.J. Transit users, while the Gateway Project expansion would smooth out regional network challenges, Williams said.
“Our bridge and tunnel system into and out of New York is antiquated and unreliable,” Williams said. “Our general riding public that depends on this system to get to and from work deserves better.”
In his remarks, Biden, touring New Jersey as the bipartisan infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better agenda work through Congress, paid particular attention to the middle-class jobs created and the need for improvement in the nation’s roads, rails and bridges.
“We invested in ourselves and in our people, our families,” President Biden said. “Somewhere along the way, we took our eyes off the ball. Our infrastructure used to be the best in the world.”
Now, he said, 12 other nations are considered to have better infrastructure thanks to years of implementation of failed “trickle-down” strategies and at least a decade without a transformative bill to address deterioration has not helped.
One example familiar to the president’s audience at the speech is the New Jersey Portal Bridge, which is being targeted for replacement. Once considered “state of the art,” Biden said it’s an impediment, even as it continues to be what he described as “the busiest rail span in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s also prone to having the tracks misaligned with a sledgehammer needing to be used to set things to rights, he said.
The Portal project is just one item in an agenda that Biden promised would reinvigorate the nation’s railroad system and create 8,000 union jobs.
“I’m a train guy,” Biden said. “Because it’s also the single most significant way we can deal with air pollution and the single most significant way we can deal with global warming.
“With my infrastructure bill, we are going to make sure that projects like this are only the beginning … We are going to make the largest investment in public transportation in the history of America, replacing transit vehicles that are past their useful life and make the most-significant investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.
The 2022 fiscal year budget proposed by the Biden administration May 28 offers a net increase in funding to the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) to cover accumulating administrative costs and to improve customer service.
The White House’s budget request of a little over $125 million for RRB, if approved by Congress, would result in a gain of $11 million for RRB to cover staffing needs to better serve railroad workers nearing retirement, retirees and their survivors.
In its budget request to U.S. House leadership and to Vice President Kamala Harris, RRB reported that it has a staffing deficit of 12% from its minimum levels and that the RRB’s programs office has been operating at a reduced capacity because funding for the agency has been nearly flat for five years. Its workforce also is aging, with nearly a quarter of its workers now eligible to retire and 231 employees eligible to retire in the next year.
The added funding will allow RRB to increase its ranks to 801 full-time employees at a time when it needs workers to take care of retirement, survivor claims and numerous other customer-facing duties that had been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and chronic understaffing. In its budget request, RRB reported that just 35% of the 1.2 to 1.3 million calls its Bureau of Field Services received were answered in FY2020.
“We are operating in a transitional state that requires a sufficient investment in staffing to sustain benefit determination and payment operations, which still rely heavily on manual processing, while ensuring that the agency retains the knowledge of our laws and systems critical to modernizing benefit payment systems,” the agency stated. “The RRB believes that an increase in staffing is critical to the success of the agency over the next few years.”
The budget request is not the only way the current administration is working to improve RRB.
The agency’s years-long project to upgrade its IT infrastructure finally received full funding through Biden and Congress’s American Rescue Plan. The agency said that the modernization of RRB’s systems should also help to open the door to better service and more efficiency once fully implemented.
“We are grateful to the Congress for providing annual and supplemental appropriations that have fully funded RRB’s IT Modernization program,” RRB stated.
President Joe Biden on April 26 signed an executive order that created a Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to increase union density and union organizing in the country.
The group will be led by Vice President Kamala Harris and DOL Secretary Marty Walsh and have more than 20 members of Biden’s Cabinet and heads of agencies involved, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.
“American workers have faced increasing barriers to organizing and bargaining collectively with their employers. Economic change in the United States and globally, technological developments, and the failure to modernize federal organizing and labor-management relations laws so they respond appropriately to the reality found in American workplaces have made worker organizing exceedingly difficult. The result has been a steady decline in union membership in the United States over past decades,” a White House fact sheet on the creation of the task force stated. “Since 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted, the policy of the federal government has been to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining, not to merely allow or tolerate them. In the 86 years since the Act was passed, the federal government has never fully implemented this policy.”
The task force intends to, within 180 days, recommend ways that current policies, programs and practices can be used to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining in the federal government and identify where new policies, regulatory and statutory changes are needed to achieve the task force’s mission.
The goals set forth for the task force are:
Lead by example by ensuring that the federal government is a model employer with respect to encouraging worker organizing and collective bargaining among its workforce.
Facilitate worker organizing across the country by taking an all-of-government approach to mobilize the federal government’s policies, programs and practices to provide workers the opportunity to organize and bargain collectively.
Increase worker power in underserved communities by examining and seeking to address the particular challenges to worker organizing in jurisdictions with restrictive labor laws; the added challenges that marginalized workers in many communities encounter, including women and people of color; and the heightened barriers to organizing workers in certain industries.
Increase union membership across the United States to grow a more inclusive middle class and provide workers the opportunity to come together for the purpose of mutual advancement, the dignity of worker and workers, respect and the fair compensation they deserve.