I just sat through a pretty boring hearing on rail financing. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because the fireworks came at the end, when Rep. John Mica picked a fight with the wrong man.
John Robert Smith is familiar face in transportation reform circles. The former Republican mayor of the town of Meridian, Miss., he now leads two of the most significant advocacy organizations in the field, Transportation for America and Reconnecting America. He also happens to be a former chair of Amtrak’s board of directors. All of those qualifications made him a natural choice to testify as a witness at this House Transportation Committee hearing.
WASHINGTON — In the face of bipartisan get-tough-with-labor legislation introduced in the House and Senate, two of the remaining unions without national rail contracts agreed to a tentative settlement Dec. 1, and a third reached agreement with the carriers Dec. 1 to extend a cooling-off period into February.
With these agreements, the threat of a national railroad strike has been averted for now.
Previously, the Transportation Communications Union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and the various shopcrafts, including the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, reached tentative six-year agreements with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC). The NCCC represents BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Soo Line, Union Pacific and numerous smaller railroads in national handling.
UTU members earlier ratified a five-year national rail contract.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the American Train Dispatchers Association agreed Dec. 1 to a tentative six-year agreement as recommended last month by Presidential Emergency Board No. 243. References to the UTU’s ratified national rail contract are extensive in the PEB recommendations.
While the BLET is in national handling for health care, it previously reached ratified wage agreements with BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern for lower wage increases than the UTU and other organizations, and continues separate talks on wages with Union Pacific.
Also, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes reached agreement with the NCCC to extend into February a cooling-off period that was to expire Dec. 5.
The BLET and train dispatchers’ tentative agreements, and the cooling-off period extension agreed to by the BMWE Dec. 1, came in the face of separate House and Senate resolutions.
The House resolution, H.J. 91 and introduced by House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), would have imposed as a final agreement on the BLET, the train dispatchers and the BMWE the PEB recommendations.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was set to introduce for immediate Senate vote an identical resolution (S.J. 31). After the BLET, train dispatchers’ and BMWE agreements were announced late Dec. 1, Sen. Reid said:
“I applaud all the stakeholders who worked to avert a work stoppage that would have hurt our nation’s economy just as the holiday season gets underway. It is Congress’ constitutional duty to ensure the unfettered flow of interstate commerce, and to protect the nation’s economic well-being. I am pleased with this outcome and congratulate all sides, including the White House and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, for their effort to find common ground that protects our economy and keeps it on-track.”
WASHINGTON – For more than four years, Congress has attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a long-term commercial aviation funding bill to modernize airports and the national’s air traffic control system.
Two sticking points this year in reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are an extension of the $200 million Essential Air Service program and a National Mediation Board ruling affecting representation votes under the Railway Labor Act.
The Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial air service to some 150 rural communities that, otherwise, would lose their air service because it is unprofitable — is provided primarily by regional airlines that employ UTU-represented pilots and flight attendants.
The NMB rule-change scrapped a 75-year curiousity of counting those who chose not to vote as having voted “no” for union representation. The new rule comported with every other democratic election — whether it be for the local PTA or for members of Congres — counting only those ballots actually cast in determining whether employees wish to be represented by a labor union.
However, conservative Republican leaders, such as House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), want to scrap subsidies that assure air service to rural areas and overturn, through legislation, the NMB ruling.
While the Republican-controlled House of Representatives remains opposed to the Essential Air Service subsidies and the modernization of the rep-vote rule by the NMB, the Democratic-controlled Senate has pushed back. With no agreement, lawmakers have passed a series of short-term funding extensions that keep the nation’s commercial aviation network running while they continue to lock horns over the subsidy and vote-rule issue. As a result, long-term funding for airport and safety improvements is in liimbo.
The latest of 22 short-term extensions expires Jan. 31, and Mica is threatening to allow another partial shutdown of the system as occurred earlier this year when the House and Senate failed to agree, for a few days, on even another short-term extension.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) remain committeed to not sacrificing the Essential Air Service program or allowing a congressional rollback of the NMB rule. President Obama has promised to veto any bill that does not preserve the Essential Air program and leave untouched the NMB ruling.
This congressional battle, as with so many other issues before Congress, has become, from Greek mythology, a Sisyphean struggle – a reference to King Sisyphus punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and having to repeat this through eternity.
January brings a new session of Congress and the start of state legislative sessions across the country. Our UTU legislative team in Washington and our state legislative directors will be on guard protecting the interests of our members.
Two old UTU friends are in charge of key transportation committees in the House and Senate. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) now chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee; and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) continues as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Among UTU legislative priorities:
Growing passenger and freight rail transportation, including Amtrak, public transit and commuter airline service. America has become too dependent on foreign oil and expanded railroad and public transit service can help reduce that dependency and provide not just jobs, but excellent careers.
Growing funding for transit. While demand is growing, many transit systems have buses and commuter rail cars stored because of a shortage of operating funds. We will work to secure more flexible funding so service can be maintained and expanded.
Work to prevent the weakening or privatization of Social Security and Railroad Retirement.
Work with our aviation partners for reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to include new safety provisions.
Work to pass improvements to the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Our members know the solution to fatigue: “Just tell me when I must report for work and I will show up rested.”
Among improvements sought will be: A 10-hour call for all unassigned road service; a provision to allow regular yard jobs only eight hours off-duty between shifts; require yardmaster assignments to be covered by hours-of-service provisions; require advance notice of interim release periods; and, a limitation on limbo time to a maximum of two hours for each tour of duty.
While the UTU has many friends on both sides of the aisle, we expect very few major policy issues to pass Congress the next two years given the divided government (Republicans in charge of the House; Democrats controlling the Senate).
While that may be disappointing, we also expect there to be less opportunity for bad things to happen.
That said, we will keep pressing on and do our very best to protect the interest of our members.
WASHINGTON — The outgoing chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee – Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was defeated in the Nov. 2 elections – fears increased polarization along party lines when the new Congress is seated in January.
In an interview published by cnn.com, Oberstar, who was known to exert great effort to reach bipartisan agreement, said:
“I think there will be a significant loss of ability to moderate and mediate and bring consensus together … what the election brought into the Republican Party are persons who are committed to the more extreme conservatism, and on the Democratic side those who are more hard-core liberals … governance is best when you govern from the center and reach out to bring the views of both sides to a compromise.”
Oberstar was not speaking about the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee leadership, where most transportation legislation affecting UTU airline, bus and rail members originates.
In fact, there was considerable bipartisan agreement among the T&I committee’s leadership under Oberstar’s chairmanship; and, previously, the chairmanship of now retired Republican Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, when Oberstar was the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The new chairman of the T&I Committee will be nine-term House member John Mica (R-Fla.), who was the ranking Republican when Oberstar was chairman.
The ranking Democrat in the 2011-2012 Congress will be Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), a 17-term veteran who is respected for his efforts at seeking bipartisan consensus.
Oberstar, who will depart Congress Dec. 31, has served in the House for 18 two-year terms.