Given a second chance to act, New York Governor Kathy Hochul has chosen to side with safety.

In late 2022, a bill requiring two-person crews on freight trains in the state reached her desk — and she vetoed it.

But something changed in 2023. Perhaps it was seeing legislatures and governors in both Ohio and Minnesota take the steps to pass legislation, or the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that happened last February.

Either way, Hochul made the right decision on December 8, 2023, when she signed S.5775 into law: capping a superlative effort from SMARTTD’s New York State Legislative Board led by State Legislative Director Sam Nasca.

A mere three years ago, a bill establishing a minimum freight crew size did not even make it out of a state Senate committee. Now, New York is the third state in 2023 to pass two-person crew legislation, bringing the total number of states to have implemented legislation or regulations regarding a minimum two-person crew to 12.

“Another state has come to the conclusion that a two-person crew is appropriate and necessary for safe railroad operations,” SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “We thank all of the legislators, especially state Senator Timothy Kennedy, who introduced the bill in his chamber, and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli for their leadership.

“Congratulations to all on the TD New York State Legislative Board for pulling together and achieving another victory.”

The bill was introduced in March and establishes an escalating structure of fines for violations by Class I and II rail carriers that run freight trains without two on the crew in the state. It took effect in January 2024.

SMART members positioned for unprecedented opportunity

The time is now for our union. Across all the industries and crafts represented in our union — HVAC installation, railroading, indoor air quality, transit operation, architectural sheet metal, production, sign work, bus operation and beyond — SMART members are positioned for generational growth. Now, we need to seize these opportunities.

Political advocacy pays off for sheet metal workers

Unprecedented investment in the sheet metal industry — much of it due to strong labor standards and incentives included in federal legislation in the U.S. — paired with ongoing core work is creating incredibly high demand. SMART local unions now have the chance to organize and recruit aggressively to meet workforce needs.

SMART Transportation Division on offense

SMART-TD members are on offense against the railroads and their Wall Street-driven Precision Scheduled Railroading scheme for the first time in recent memory. We have seen victories and progress on two-person crew and rail safety legislation in Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio and other states across the country, and we need to keep pushing. More on page 28.

The same goes for the safety and working conditions of our brothers and sisters operating on public transit systems. We have seen far too many shocking, brazen attacks on our members while they are simply doing their jobs, safely transporting passengers from point A to point B. Policymakers and community members alike need to hear our voices and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this cannot stand.

Organize today, win tomorrow

It is a new day for organized labor. Workers are organizing like they haven’t in generations, and 71% of Americans approve of unions: the highest percentage since the 1960s. And yet, the percentage of unionized workers remains too low, and we have seen the consequences in Maryland, Washington, Colorado and beyond. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.

Under ordinary circumstances, SMART-TD’s National Legislative Department relies on National Legislative Director (NLD) Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Legislative Department Chief of Staff Jenny Miller to educate our nation’s lawmakers on rail safety. But on this year’s “Railroad Day on the Hill” — held annually on the legislative calendar — 35 men and women representing 15 different states answered the call, traveling to Washington, DC to advocate for railroaders.

This formidable group of SMART-TD representatives conducted more than 100 meetings with legislators: sharing the gospel of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, shorter trains, increased quality of life and better safety inspections of rolling stock with any Congress member or staffer willing to listen.

In addition to holding this important series of meetings and reaching out to over 100 members of the House and Senate, SMART-TD representatives attended a press conference in support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced the introduction of the Healthy Families Act. This legislation includes provisions ensuring that every company with over 100 employees provides a minimum of 7 paid sick days to its employees. This bill has language in it that speaks directly to railroad companies.

The Healthy Families Act indicates the progress our union made in the 2022 national contract negotiations. In December 2022, Sanders pushed for similar legislation that was strictly aimed at railroaders — and though it won a majority of votes in both the House and Senate, it failed to get the 60 votes needed to carry a filibuster-proof supermajority and make it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

With the ramifications of this bill’s success weighing heavily on the quality-of-life improvements that SMART-TD continues to seek for our members, Sen. Sanders reached out to SMART’s Legislative Department and made a point of inviting our representatives to his press conference.

Following the successes of the day’s events, NLD Hynes expressed his gratitude to the army of SMART-TD leaders who made the trip.

“These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty to be here today, and because of them, we had a fantastic show of force in the halls of Congress. The validity of our issues speaks for itself, but when leaders from these different states show up to meet with their congressional and senate delegations, it makes an impact on these lawmakers,” he said. “They hear from Jared Cassity and me all the time, but when someone from home comes to meet with them in DC, it puts a face to our issues in a unique way.

“I want to thank each and every one of them for making the effort to come out this year, and with your help, we will deliver on the promise of the Railway Safety Act, the REEF Act, and all the issues that speak to the quality of life our members deserve and the dignity of the work they do each day.”

Making two-person crews the rule of the land in the state of Kansas took an atypical route to the finish line but got there just the same.

It has been the goal of SMART Transportation Division Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo for years and it was finally achieved. When asked about how he made this happen, Brother Dragoo cited persistence and patience as the keys, along with some out-of-the-box thinking.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who began her second term in Topeka in January, has been a friend to rail labor throughout four terms in the state Senate as well as in her first term as governor. Throughout her public service, she’s accomplished quite a bit for rail members and their families in Kansas, and during her first term as governor, she and SMART-TD thought that 2PC had been made the law of the state.

On July 27, 2020, Kelly signed a safety rule establishing a minimum railroad crew size — making Kansas the ninth state in the country to have accomplished this goal. Just one formality stood in the way of that being a reality.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly poses with Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo.

At the time she signed the rule sent to her desk from the Kansas Department of Transportation, the state’s attorney general was a man named Derek Schmidt, a Republican who was in the beginning stages of campaigning to challenge Kelly for governor in 2022. In an effort to flex his political muscle and block his future opponent from the accomplishment, Schmidt opted not to sign the safety rule, allowing it to die on his desk. As they say, “Schmidt happens.”

What did not die that day was the drive of Brother Dragoo and his team of LRs to secure the conductor craft in Kansas.

As the political fight card for Kansas’s statewide races coalesced for the 2022 election cycle, it was no surprise to see Schmidt squaring off against Kelly to take the reins. This was obviously not in the best interest of our membership, so Dragoo and SMART had a clear-cut role to play. SMART-TD and all Kansas’s labor movement worked hard to secure Kelly’s narrow 11,000-vote re-election in 2022. As a bonus, Schmidt’s failed gubernatorial ambitions meant that he forfeited his seat as the state’s attorney general.

Having learned the hard way that having a rail labor-friendly governor in office was not enough on its own to get a 2PC rule into state law, Dragoo and his team of LRs also got involved in the state’s race for the AG’s office.

In that race, rail labor had the luxury of having both candidates for the job open to our message. In an unconventional manner, Dragoo and SMART-TD endorsed both Democrat Chris Mann and Republican Kris Kobach. Both candidates had advocated for rail safety, and that is what matters to our organization. Political party affiliation is not what qualifies someone to earn our endorsement, a commitment to rail safety is. As it happened, SMART-TD was the only trade union in the state of Kansas that endorsed Kobach. It was a distinction that did not go unnoticed, and, appropriately on May Day, Kobach didn’t forget about his labor support.

Dragoo and the Kansas State Legislative Board had secured the needed support in both offices to solidify the 2PC rule, so when Gov. Kelly again sent the DOT’s proposed safety rule to the AG’s office, it was signed and sealed into Kanas state law.

“We always need to remember that elections have consequences all the way up and down the ticket,” Brother Dragoo said about the five-year-long multi-party, multi-office, multi-administration battle to secure the role of freight conductors in his state. “SMART-TD and labor in general cannot allow ourselves to confine our thinking to the standard way of doing business in our state capitals. This holds especially true in red states that are traditionally less friendly to our causes.”

When asked about the ramifications of the rule becoming the law of the land in Kansas, Dragoo went on to say: “This is the proudest day of my career. It took every one of our LRs in the state to get this done, and I’m eternally grateful to my team as well as Gov. Kelly, AG Kobach and their staff for safeguarding our members and the public through the work they have done on this regulation.”

SMART-TD is very proud of the work being done in Kansas. Not only have they cemented the two-person crew in the state this year, but in the 2023 legislative session in Topeka, they also presented a noteworthy 13 bills in their efforts to bolster safety on the state’s railways.

Time will tell if these bills have the legislative support to be signed into law in the future, but if the past two years have taught us anything, we know that Brother Dragoo doesn’t take no for an answer very well, and these bills will be given every opportunity to be considered one way or another.

The 2PC regulation will take effect upon the publication of the Kansas Administrative Regulations (KAR) that follows the conclusion of their general assembly for the year. Brother Dragoo anticipates that this will happen in a matter of weeks.

SMART sheet metal and Transportation Division members mobilized throughout the 2023 legislative session in Minnesota, emerging with massive victories that will provide work opportunities and increased on-the-job safety for years to come.

On May 24, Minn. Governor Tim Walz signed HF 2887, making two-person crews on freight trains the law of the land in the state. The massive transportation omnibus bill was passed by the state legislature on May 21 and, along with the minimum crew size provision, includes infrastructure dollars to bring passenger rail jobs to Minnesota.

“The Minnesota Legislative Board began working on minimum crew size in 2015,” said SMART-TD Minnesota State Legislative Director (SLD) Nick Katich. “At that time, Phil Qualy was director, and I was his assistant. We passed it in the house once and the senate once, but never together.”

Minimum crew size began as its own bill in the state senate, with a companion bill in the house. (The legislation was later moved into the omnibus bill due to time constraints.) The bill passed through all committees despite the railroads actively opposing it.

“It was difficult when the railroads were testifying to keep a straight face,” commented Katich. “Some of their claims were so false or misleading it would make you sick. Our job was to help the lawmakers see through the smokescreen, and we did just that.”

In addition to minimum crew size, the omnibus bill fully funded the Northern Lights Express, Amtrak’s passenger service between Duluth and Minneapolis, at $194.7 million. This allows access to matching funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and means more work opportunities for our members. The legislation also included two more state rail safety inspectors, additional funding for passenger rail corridor studies and railroad-provided first responder training.

“I would like to personally thank the SMART-TD Minnesota Legislative Board for their unwavering support and confidence, the local officers who volunteered to pitch in and the members and retirees for keeping track and sending encouragement,” Katich added. “I would also add that I would like to thank our friends in the Minnesota AFL-CIO. They had our backs and watched for the railroad lobbyists lurking around where they shouldn’t be.”

Minnesota sheet metal workers notched a job-creating victory the same day, when Walz signed into law the energy, environmental and natural resources omnibus bill passed by the house and senate. As part of the sprawling legislation, which also includes rebate programs for heat pumps, the law stipulates that the Minnesota Department of Commerce must establish and administer an air ventilation program to award grants to public school boards in Minnesota, with the grants covering work such as testing and balancing, HVAC and energy efficiency upgrades and much more. Importantly for SMART members, the bill specifically includes strong prevailing wage language that requires work covered by grants to “be performed by a skilled and trained workforce that is paid the prevailing wage rate … and of which at least 80 percent of the construction workers are either registered in or graduates of a registered apprenticeship program for the applicable occupation.”

Gov. Walz with SMART Local 10 members following his 2023 inauguration.

“We see this program as a win, win, win,” said Local 10 (Minnesota) Business Manager Matt Fairbanks. “Jobs, clean energy, cost savings and human health. This program is dedicated to the work our members do day in and day out, starting with the front-end assessment that will identify deficiencies and flow into future system upgrades.”

“Not only will this provide our members with future hours and food on their plates, but it will also shine a light on our members’ stewardship to the community,” he added. “I think providing healthy air to children, cost savings for adults and clean energy for the environment is a pretty big deal!”

Such legislative wins would never have been possible without the votes and advocacy of members across the state. In the 2022 midterm elections, pro-worker candidates took control — albeit with a slim majority — of the Minnesota House and Senate, with Walz winning reelection, and immediately passed a slew of laws that will benefit SMART members. That includes what most in the Minnesota building trades consider the most expansive prevailing wage enhancements in state history: from increased enforcement, to attaching the law to state funds, programs, energy projects and more.

The legislature also passed paid sick leave for all workers; the banning of anti-union captive audience meetings; new protections for meatpackers, construction workers and Amazon employees; a huge expansion of paid family and medical leave; the largest increase in state history to the Minnesota work compensation system’s permanent partial disability fund; a universal free school breakfast and lunch program for the kids of working families; and more.

“Politics is a slow-grinding machine, and we ask our members to participate in all kinds of different ways: from volunteering in phone banks, to door knocks, lit drops, parades and — most importantly — voting,” Fairbanks added. “Because of our members’ trust and dedication, we got to see the tree bear fruit, and that feels great! Not only did our state see a historic session for workers’ rights and investments, we get to witness firsthand that hard work does pay off. Thank you to all the Local 10 members that stood with us and helped get so many things done this year.”

SMART released the latest episode of SMART News on Thursday, July 6. Episode 10 features an interview with Local 19 apprentice Elena Farina on the Biden administration; coverage of SMART General President Mike Coleman’s visit to Ford Blue Oval City in Tennessee; an overview of SMART-TD’s recently negotiated railroad agreements, which include paid leave; infrastructure funding and jobs in Boston; and another two-person crew victory for railroaders in Minnesota.

Watch individual videos from this episode:

Farina, a second-year apprentice with Local 19, joined her fellow Philadelphia sheet metal workers and members from across organized labor for an event with President Biden in June. During her SMART News interview, she explained the impact of pro-worker policies implemented by the Biden administration, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. She also emphasized the importance of voting for candidates who have materially acted in the interests of the working class.

“Vote with your pocket, you know what I’m saying,” Farina said. “Everyone has their own personal issues, but at the end of the day your livelihood is what’s going to sustain you.”

Longtime sheet metal worker and union leader Mike Coleman assumed the position of SMART general president on June 1st, 2023. He immediately began emphasizing the extraordinary opportunities on the horizon for SMART members, including work at megaprojects like Ford’s Blue Oval City in Stanton, Tennessee.

“There’s just so many things to be excited about, but what I think I’m most excited to do is answer the call for these megaprojects: getting our members on those jobs, and making sure we get every hour out of those projects,” Coleman said.

Following on last year’s national rail negotiations, SMART-TD members have gained paid sick leave benefits for train & engine workers at some of the Big Four U.S.-based carriers. SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity provided an overview of some of the historic agreements — both tentative and ratified — that have been made.

Workers, union leaders and elected officials came together during a May event at the Local 17 training center in Boston to highlight the union jobs created by ongoing infrastructure investments. SMART Northeast Regional Council Business Rep. Shamaiah Turner spoke with SMART News about how infrastructure funding is creating unprecedented opportunity for sheet metal workers in New England.

“The future for sheet metal workers in Boston is very bright,” she explained. “Right now we have a LOT of work … we’re out there every day, talking to people who work at open shops, we’re organizing new shops every day, and we’re organizing new journeypeople every day.”

Finally, SMART-TD Minnesota State Legislative Director Nick Katich called in to SMART News to discuss how Minnesota railroaders were able to finally secure two-person crew and passenger rail funding in the state (as well as a slew of pro-worker bills). Long story short, he explained, the victory had everything to do with putting pro-worker elected officials in office — something union members achieved when they helped the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party take control of the state house, senate and governor’s office.

Watch all episode 10 segments here.

With daily headlines nationwide about railroad safety legislation, it has come to feel like every day is “Railroad Day on the Hill.” However, the event is formally held once a year on the legislative calendar for representatives from rail unions and rail carriers alike to descend on D.C. to discuss the issues that face our industry.

Members of the SMART Transportation Division contingent, including Alt. National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Vice President Chad Adams, meet with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (front, right) on May 17 in Washington, D.C.

Under normal circumstances, building relationships with the 535 members of Congress falls on SMART-TD’s staff of three in our Washington D.C. National Legislative Department, but on May 17th’s Railroad Safety Day, plenty of reinforcements within our union marched forth to lead the effort with other labor groups.

This support came in the form of 35 men and women representing 15 different states. State legislative directors, vice state legislative directors, general chairpersons, local legislative reps and state legislative vice chairs from across the country answered the call to help SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Legislative Department Chief of Staff, Jenny Miller educate our nation’s lawmakers on rail safety.

This formidable group of SMART-TD representatives was not in D.C. as tourists. Between the group of attendees, they held over 100 meetings with legislators sharing the gospel of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, shorter trains, increased quality of life and better safety inspections of rolling stock with any Congress member or staffer willing to listen.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a rally for paid sick leave for U.S. workers Wednesday, May 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In addition to holding this important series of meetings and reaching out to over 100 members of the House and Senate, SMART-TD representatives attended a press conference in support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced his legislation known as the Healthy Families Act. This legislation includes provisions ensuring that every company with over 100 employees provides a minimum of 7 paid sick days to its employees. This bill has language in it that speaks directly to railroad companies.

This bill indicates the progress our union made in the 2022 national contract negotiations. In December 2022, Sanders pushed for similar legislation that was strictly aimed at railroaders and though it won a majority of votes in both the House and Senate, it failed to get the 60 votes it needed to carry a filibuster-proof supermajority and make it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-Td Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-TD Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.

With the ramifications of this bill’s success weighing heavily on the quality-of-life improvements that SMART-TD continues to seek for our members, Sen. Sanders reached out to SMART’s Legislative Department and made a point of inviting our representatives to his press conference.

Following the successes of the day’s events, NLD Hynes expressed his gratitude to the army of SMART-TD leaders who made the trip.

“These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty to be here today, and because of them, we had a fantastic show of force in the halls of Congress. The validity of our issues speaks for itself, but when leaders from these different states show up to meet with their congressional and senate delegations it makes an impact on these lawmakers,” he said. “They hear from Jared Cassity and me all the time, but when someone from home comes to meet with them in D.C., it puts a face to our issues in a unique way.

“I want to thank each and every one of them for making the effort to come out this year, and with your help, we will deliver on the promise of the Railway Safety Act, the REEF Act, and all the issues that speak to the quality of life our members deserve and the dignity of the work they do each day.”

The RSA, which was born from the East Palestine derailment and contains two-person crew language, cleared its first major hurdle today when it passed through the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill’s passage through committee was not without controversy and fireworks, with a debate between two Republican Senators during a discussion of amendments. However, at the end of the meeting, the RSA was passed and now moves on to the Senate.  

As a rule, freshman legislators on every level are expected to spend their first year, if not their first term, being seen and not heard. There is a tremendous learning curve, and most are happy to take in all of the information and calibrate themselves before becoming vocal, especially when taking on the standard bearers of their own political parties.  

Unlike most other Senators, JD Vance (R-Ohio) had the luxury of a learning curve taken away from him by the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Like a first-round draft-pick quarterback who has to put down the clipboard and step into the game before planned, Vance was thrown into the middle of the action.  

Today – May 10, 2023 – Vance helped usher the Rail Safety Act of 2023 to a bipartisan 16-11 win in the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  

Vance’s opening statement in support of the bill came directly on the heels of longtime Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pulling his support for the Vance/Brown Bill. In the face of this adversity, Vance came out swinging. Among other holes he poked in Cruz’s argument against the bill, he said: “We cannot on the one hand acknowledge that Ohio taxpayers and Ohio citizens are bearing the cost of this accident and on the other hand say that it’s ridiculous to require the railroad industry to do a little bit more on safety. They should be incurring some additional costs so that another East Palestine doesn’t happen again.” 

In a direct response to Cruz’s damnation of his bill as being too costly for railroads to be expected to pay for, Vance added: “Yes, it may make rail transportation a little bit more expensive. But it’s going to make rail transportation a little more expensive in the service of safety. Because let’s be honest. We have allowed the rail industry to socialize the risk of their business while privatizing the rewards. The people of East Palestine are going to deal with the cost of what Norfolk Southern did for the next generation.” 

When the hearing was opened for Senators to offer amendments to the bill, another institution of the Senate and Vance’s Republican party, John Thune (R-South Dakota), offered an amendment he claimed would alleviate the burden of Class II and Class III railroads. In his remarks, he more than suggested that other legislators aren’t in touch with rural/agricultural economies. In the face of the Thune amendment, Vance responded, “There are a number of agricultural communities small and big in the state of Ohio and a lot in East Palestine. They bear the cost when railways set off chemical bombs in their community – which is exactly what happened a couple of months ago. Those costs have been socialized onto Ohio and American taxpayers.” 

Following Vance’s comments, the Thune amendment was defeated. Shortly after that success, Vance and the Railway Safety Act of 2023 scored a huge win for rail labor with a 16-11 passage of the bill (without the rejected amendments proposed by Cruz and Thune). For his part in the day’s proceedings, the newcomer received accolades not often heard in the halls of the United States Senate.  

Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) thanked Vance for his leadership and said that he was happy to lend his support to the legislation. Both Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) made a point to highlight Vance’s acumen. Chair Cantwell said of Vance that, “I have to say, sir, you’ve come to the Senate and you’ve hit the ground running. And I appreciate that because you are responding to a crisis that happened in your state and you’re responding on behalf of your citizens so that this doesn’t happen again.” 

It goes without saying that SMART Transportation Division is encouraged by the bipartisan effort it took to get the Rail Safety Act of 2023 through the Senate committee, and we hope the sentiment continues as the bill now proceeds to the Senate floor and then onto the House.  

Rail safety is not for sale. America’s rail workers need legislation to reverse the harmful trajectory of the industry and to protect the communities in which they operate. We thank Senators Vance and Schmitt for their support, as well as every Democratic Senator on the Senate Commerce Committee for fighting to protect our members. 

By Andy Hauck, Wisconsin SMART Transportation Division State Legislative Director

On February 1 in Washington, DC, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held its first meeting of the 118th congressional session, and one member in particular wasted no time in informing rail labor that our truths and issues make him uncomfortable and that we essentially need to sit down and shut up.

Wisconsin SLD Hauck

The meeting was called to address delays and obstacles in the nation’s supply chain and how the money allocated by President Biden and the outgoing Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) should be used to address these problems. President Greg Regan of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) was the only voice of labor in this important conversation. The nation’s hugely profitable rail carriers were represented by Ian Jefferies of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Representatives from the trucking industry, the port of Houston and a representative for corporate building contractors also took part.

Late in the hearing, Wisconsin Rep. Derrick Van Orden (a Jan. 6th-attendee-turned-U.S.-congressman) used his five minutes to ask softball questions to the industry reps before attempting to intimidate Regan, the sole labor representative.

AFL-CIO TTD President Regan

After being asked if he had any relation to former President Ronald Reagan (note the different spelling), TTD’s Regan chuckled and said, “No. He fired the air traffic controllers, and I have the privilege of representing them.” This light-hearted one-liner was quickly met with a response from Van Orden meant to put all of labor on notice. Van Orden said that he had read the written testimony offered by the AFL-CIO TTD — an umbrella organization representing hundreds of thousands of workers from nearly three dozen unions — and that he had some advice to offer: “Change your tone!”

Van Orden then went on to declare that while he is willing to work with anyone to solve problems, he didn’t appreciate the manner in which Regan stood up for all of us in the rail labor community. He was indicating to Regan and rail labor that he would not be moved by the ugly truths we have to share with him about the realities we face each day as workers in the industry. He was clearly offended by Regan’s audacity to point out in his written statement that rail carriers have been investing less into their own infrastructure since the onset of the job-cutting, profit-at-any-cost Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) operating model – despite their record profits, which could have been used to enhance safety in the railroad industry.

Two days following this committee hearing, on Feb. 3, the world found out that the “tone” of Regan’s written comments was all too warranted. Roughly 52 hours after Rep. Van Orden’s blanket dismissal of Regan and rail labor’s concerns, Norfolk Southern train 32N left the rails in East Palestine, Ohio. Then, on April 27, the reality of Regan’s concerns hit a little closer to home for the first-term congressman.

Rep. Van Orden

In Ferryville, Wisconsin – in Van Orden’s home district – a BNSF train not only derailed, but two intermodal cars fell into the Mississippi River. Thankfully for all involved, this derailment did not result in a fiery hazmat spill like the horrific scene in February on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. Yet the visual of the twisted cars in the water might be enough to give Rep. Van Orden a new perspective. If the cars that cascaded into the river had been among the many on that train that contain dangerous chemicals, it could have contaminated the water supply of communities from southwestern Wisconsin all the way to New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

No one wants to see anything even close to that scale happen, but the drone footage of the derailment in Ferryville demonstrates the validity and well-warranted urgency Regan and all of rail labor possess when it comes to matters of public and worker safety.

When faced with the reality of the rail carriers’ disregard for rail safety, rail labor does not have the luxury of being diplomatic. If our urgency and sense of impending catastrophe is unsettling to those who read it, it is based on reality, not hyperbole, as evidenced by the ongoing concern for the long-term impacts of the East Palestine derailment in Ohio and the surrounding areas. There is no way that President Regan could have given the concerns of his rail members the credence they deserved politely or in a comforting tone. The reality is that such concerns need to be shouted, rather than whispered. If the members of Congress who received Regan’s written statement were startled by what they read, they absolutely should have been. It’s what the situation warrants.

But, with the large number of headline-grabbing rail accidents that have occurred since the committee hearing, including a major derailment in Rep. Van Orden’s backyard, the question becomes: Has the freshman congressman witnessed enough that he can see past the perceived tone of labor’s warnings regarding railroad safety to where he can recognize their merit? Can the freshman congressman appreciate the teamwork and structure (historically similar to the United States Military) that is required to move America forward?

The U.S. Senate currently has the Railway Safety Act of 2023 before it, bipartisan legislation sponsored by the senators of the states affected by the East Palestine derailment. Van Orden’s House of Representatives is also entertaining a companion piece of legislation but with important portions deleted, such as a measure that establishes a minimum two-person crew on freight trains and stops the industry’s attempts to run three-mile-long trains with just one person (or no one) on board.

The SMART Transportation Division, the nation’s largest freight railroad union, hopes that Rep. Van Orden can get on board with the provisions in this legislation and help to advocate for and pass unaltered the bill of Sens. Brown (D-Ohio), Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) as they champion safety on America’s railroads. Considering his position on the House Transportation Committee, Van Orden’s support is of great importance.

Perhaps, after Rep. Van Orden heard rail labor’s concerns in February and witnessed the April 27th derailment in Ferryville, seeing will now result in believing for him.

Andy Hauck is a 28-year veteran of the Railroad industry and is the Wisconsin state legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, a labor union comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. These crafts include employees on every Class I railroad, Amtrak, many shortline railroads, bus and mass transit employees and airport personnel.

In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing on March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment” to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the accident and to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.

The committee had an all-star cast of witnesses who testified, including two U.S. senators; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who represented the community; National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw; Association of American Railroads (AAR) CEO Ian Jeffries and SMARTTD’s Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker. To begin the hearing, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance kicked off the day explaining in detail the bill, S.B. 567, they’re putting forward.

Brown began his comments by thanking the witnesses for testifying and referred directly to SLD Whitaker, calling him “an unrelenting advocate for safe working conditions for his members and all people working in Ohio railroads.”

Brown then went on to discuss why this legislation is so necessary.

“Norfolk Southern followed the Wall Street business model,” he said. “Boost profits and stock price by eliminating, over the last decade, 38% of its workforce.”

WATCH: SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker testified about rail safety issues before a U.S. Senate committee in March 2023.

He went on to describe Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) perfectly, saying, “They cut cost to boost profits. The communities along their route be damned!”

Vance followed Brown, explaining that the intention of the bill is not to put the government in charge of day-to-day operations of America’s railroad companies (like the bill’s outspoken opponents would like the public to believe). He addressed the concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, stating plainly: “You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards in the way that you conduct your railroads. It’s a ridiculous argument, and it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Gov. DeWine followed the Buckeye State’s senators and weighed in heavily on behalf of the residents of East Palestine. He started by describing life as it was in the village of 4,700 leading up to events of Feb. 3, 2023. He walked the committee through the Norman Rockwellian Friday night where the community was keenly focused on the high school basketball game in progress until the unthinkable happened.

“Life stopped being normal for everyone in this community — it stopped feeling safe — when 38 cars of that Norfolk Southern freight train, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of hazardous materials, hurtled off the track. In an instant, life turned upside down,” he said.

DeWine went on to describe the tough questions facing residents of East Palestine revolving around their physical health as well as the viability of their community’s future. These points were driven home by witness Misti Allison. Allison, a resident of East Palestine for the last four years, was testifying in front of the Senate committee on behalf of her community. In her own words, her goal was “to put a face on this chemical disaster.”

In addition to emphasizing DeWine’s points in reference to the health concerns swirling around in East Palestine, she shared other details about a community shattered. Among the issues she brought to the committee’s attention were home equity of the residents, the viability of local businesses and the concerning contradictions in the results of various sources of environmental testing of air, water and soil samples.

From left, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies appear March 22 before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing regarding rail safety.
From left, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies appear March 22 before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing regarding rail safety.

The most telling and unique issue she brought to light was the still-developing mental and emotional health concerns of the community post-derailment. She pointed out the ramifications the derailment has had, especially among the youth of East Palestine, in her written testimony: “Kids are not allowed to play on the playground because it hasn’t been cleaned. So the kids now play a game they invented called ‘EVACUATION’ during recess. This train derailment has robbed our kids of their childhood, and perhaps more,” she said.

This imagery is powerful and takes the importance of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 out of the realm of financial ramifications and puts it squarely in the arena of human rights.

At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, Brother Whitaker took the stage to speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR has had on our industry from the ground level.

In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that Norfolk Southern had been ordering their crews to disregard warnings from wayside defect detectors in his state and to keep their trains rolling after receiving alerts of hot bearings.

He informed the senators that he had personally cautioned the FRA months prior to the East Palestine derailment that carriers’ business practice and adherence to the PSR doctrine was putting our crews and communities in harm’s way.

“PSR has made the Class I railroads more than $160 billion in profit since 2015 while at the same time causing the greatest degradation of safety in modern-day railroading,” he said in his written testimony. “As we have all seen in East Palestine, this cut-your-way-to-profit model is not sustainable and it is very, very dangerous.”

He further emphasized the impact of PSR on safety by talking about the current state of safety inspections of rolling stock and maintenance of equipment.

“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections. Instead, the goal is to minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether, so the trains keep moving,” he said. “Compound this with the fact that the railroads are on a determined course to grow these trains to astronomical lengths and you have a predictable outcome, and that outcome is East Palestine.”