|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 12 - DECEMBER 1997|
|The Importance of the Legislative Arena For BMWE Membership|
|Once again, BMWE has been engaged in a costly life-or-death
struggle in the legislative arena -- this time over Amtrak. And once again, the struggle
has required the teamwork of the involved Systems, Grand Lodge and the AFL-CIO. This has
been a tough, costly fight -- one in which we've been bloodied, but in which our opponents
have been bloodied even worse. And despite the fact that we've been bloodied, it appears
that we have been able to win a respectable contract for our members on Amtrak and,
perhaps, on those railroads directly dependent on Amtrak -- METRA and NICTA.
Amtrak is America's national rail passenger system. It is a vital component of American passenger transportation, providing a space and energy efficient, ecologically friendly mode of transportation which relieves pressure from congested highways, air corridors and airports. Although rail passenger travel is an integral component of the transportation system of the rest of the industrialized world, Amtrak has become mired in mindless political rhetoric in the United States.
As a result of this mindless political rhetoric, Amtrak has been massively underfunded over its 12 years of operation and has been the subject of misrepresentation and outright lies by its political enemies. Amtrak's management has contributed to this by attempting to placate its political foes with promises of subsidy-free service by the year 2002 that are impossible to keep.
Here are just a couple of facts that demonstrate Amtrak's viability. Amtrak receives the lowest percentage of public operational subsidy of any rail passenger system on the planet earth -- more than 80% of its operating costs are obtained from private sources (paying commuters, mail service and investments). BMWE members on the commuter railroads (which partially rely on Amtrak to provide commuter service) earn between $2 and $6 per hour more than BMWE members on Amtrak. In other words, Amtrak is the most efficient rail passenger system on Earth -- not because of intelligent management but because of the sacrifices of its organized workers.
Despite this, Amtrak has never had a stable source of funding, so it is required to go to Congress every year for an appropriation -- and this is the source of one of Amtrak's greatest problems. In a town where political rhetoric all too often overcomes intelligent policy considerations, Amtrak must battle yearly to obtain enough funding to operate. And when many have bowed to the altar of the "balanced budget," one place where politicians see a potential savings is at this yearly subsidy for Amtrak.
So rather than look at Amtrak and recognize its minuscule cost for maximal results, the budget cutters micro analyze every nickel that Amtrak spends and make stupid mandates that are in vogue with the latest political winds. In short, this means that every year, Congress decides to cut already dangerously low appropriations to Amtrak even further.
Added to this is the lack of knowledge of and hostility to Amtrak's history. So when the privatization vogue becomes the latest direction of the political winds, morons decide that Amtrak should move towards privatization. Considering the fact that Amtrak and the Northeast commuters were stripped from a privatized Conrail because there is no way to run a profitable rail passenger system, it is even more stupid than usual to suggest that Amtrak should privatize. All privatization means is a bankrupt Amtrak which would require either greater federal funding to cash-strapped private companies in order to provide critical rail passenger service or more congested highways, air corridors and airports raising pollution to even more unacceptable levels and creating greater accident levels on the highways and in the air.
In 1995, after the House and the Senate both came under the control of the Republicans, Congress attempted to defund Amtrak and, minimally, kill C-2 (Amtrak legal provision which provides up to six years job protection for employees affected by the elimination of an Amtrak route) and contracting out protections. Rail Labor, with the active assistance of a rejuvenated, newly led AFL-CIO mobilized and with the solid support of the Democrats and help from a small band of Republicans was able to save Amtrak as well as C-2 and the contracting out protection. At that time, many of our State Legislative Directors worked tirelessly, for weeks at a time, lobbying the Hill and mobilizing legislative support in their states.
During the national round of bargaining, a unified and fighting BMWE, was able once again, with the critical and massive assistance of the Sweeney/Trumka/Chavez-Thompson AFL-CIO to maneuver through the Washington mine field to bring home the bacon to our members. The BMWE legislative department was once again a critical component of our effort. State legislative directors again provided tireless and skillful lobbying -- both of the Executive Branch and Congress.
Again this year on Amtrak, we were in the middle of another monumental battle -- with the Republican leadership in Congress attempting to take away C-2 and contracting out protections and defeat the increases which PEB 234 recommended. But once again, because of the coalition of BMWE, Rail Labor, the AFL-CIO and a united Democratic Party with a small band of Republicans, we stayed in the fight.
Although Congress will remove C-2 and contracting out protections from the law, we will be able to bargain over C-2 with Amtrak and strike if no agreement is reached, and we will have the contracting out protection legislated into our agreement. This resolution will free $2.3 billion dollars in capital funding for Amtrak.
Many in the Republican leadership tried to stop the contract and pass legislation which would have made it impossible for Amtrak to honor its commitments, but once again the coalition worked to see that we obtain a positive result.
The costs of the legislative fight are huge, but without expending the resources, the BMWE would be unable to achieve a positive result for its members. Similarly, if we maintained a BMWE only stance and ignored the rest of the Labor movement, we would be doomed to failure.
I wish to salute the Legislative Department, the tirelessness and dedication of the State Legislative Directors, Greg Lawler, Mike DeEmilio and Joel Myron for the leadership they have provided during these critical struggles as well as the Executive Board for voting the resources necessary to successfully battle in a hostile environment. And, of course, I salute the new AFL-CIO whose never ending assistance opens doors at crucial moments that make the difference between victory and defeat. I also thank the other rail unions for their solidarity. Special thanks must go to Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, his staff, several members of the Amtrak Board of Directors and Karen Tramontano of the White House for their superb and selfless efforts.
In the end, the BMWE is a small union and is dependent upon the good will and solidarity of others in order to win these battles. Alone, we would have a much more difficult time achieving victory, if we could achieve it at all.