Any of us who has had a conversation in a crew room, locker room or a locomotive about politics knows that there is a 50% chance that things could get awkward in a way that’ll take more than a few minutes to clear the air. When in a 10-square-foot metal box with another alpha personality for 12 hours and you have another 12 hours to look forward to the next day, we all know that it is good practice to avoid getting into the vortex of politics or religion.

Most of us have learned that lesson the hard way and have some colleagues we don’t like working with because of it. This is symptomatic of the fact that politics has no place in a bus garage or in railroading. What should matter on the job (as well as when transportation issues are discussed on Capitol Hill) are safety, common sense and getting the job done.

Your union agrees with you on this topic 100%. Our true north is keeping our members safe and properly compensated for the essential role they have in this nation’s economy. As part of our mission to accomplish these two goals, we keep as close an eye on Congress and the state legislatures as bus operators keep on traffic signals and pedestrians and railroaders keep on the track ahead.

Unlike some unions that simply choose a party and blindly support the candidates in that party, SMART-TD is laser-focused on analyzing candidates’ voting histories more than their campaign promises when we choose to endorse in any race from City Council to the presidency. The conclusion of this research is often that the Democratic candidate for a given office is more in line with the values and goals of SMART-TD on rail, bus and transit issues, but that’s NOT always the case. Just like you take a serious approach to your daily tasks on the job, our union’s national and state legislative teams do the same.

The process of breaking down each race is done pragmatically and without predetermined outcomes. As a result, a study our union’s political consultant presented at SMART’s most-recent leadership meeting showed that our Political Action Committee, (PAC) had a breakdown of 80% donations to Democrats and 20% to Republicans. As a frame of reference, our closest rail labor partner, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, had a ratio of 96% Democratic support to only 4% Republican in the same timeframe.

As it turns out, there is no political party with a monopoly on common sense or a focus on doing the right thing by transportation workers, the nation’s economy or the safety of the communities we live and work in. Co-author of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) recently said in The Hill, (a D.C. newspaper) “These rail lines pass frequently through Republican areas, small towns with a lot of Republican voters. How can we look them in the eye and say, we’re doing a good job by you? If we choose the railroads over their own interests, we can’t.” While the words align with what our union fights for daily, it is the fact that he recognizes the need for change in rail safety and introduced the legislation that will hold the most weight when considering whether to endorse Vance for a new term when the time comes.

Arizona State Legislative Director Scott Jones, left, poses with U.S. Sen. Scott Hawley during 2023's Railroad Safety Day on the Hill.
Arizona State Legislative Director Scott Jones, left, poses with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley during 2023’s Railroad Safety Day on the Hill.

Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is a polarizing national figure. However, he was one of just a half-dozen Republicans in the Senate who voted to give seven days of paid sick leave to all railroad employees in late 2022. He also supports the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 that Vance and his fellow Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced. Last week, Hawley signed on as a cosponsor to the Railroad Employee Equity and Fairness (REEF) Act to stop the practice of targeted federal taxes on our brothers and sisters who are furloughed or can’t work because of a medical disability. He has stood with SMART-TD members on these three rail issues that hit close to home for a large segment of our membership. When he signed on as a cosponsor to the REEF Act, our union emailed the news to all our members in Missouri along with a prewritten thank you to send to the senator’s office.

Unlike some other unions, our union is always open to supporting legislators whose prime motivation is our people — looking out for your safety and that of the communities where you live and work.

Please keep this fact in mind when considering whether to donate to SMART-TD’s PAC and also when you consider what union you should belong to in the first place.

Additionally, this is a good perspective to keep in mind when SMART-TD does endorse a candidate in a political race. There is no need for skepticism. If you hear any chatter that SMART-TD’s endorsements are one-sided or biased, that is 100% correct. We are unapologetically on the side of YOU and YOUR LOVED ONES who rely on you.

SMART-TD is proud to be known for this bias and not any obsession with partisanship.

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson appeared with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in Cleveland on Monday morning to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 as momentum for legislative action on railroad safety continues to build on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Brown and fellow Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Josh Hawley all are initial sponsors of the bill introduced March 1 intended to counter the negative impact Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has had on public and worker safety.

Sen. Brown started off the press conference by discussing how the rail industry has gotten itself into its current state of disrepair. He came out of the gates dropping uncomfortable realities such as, “Here’s the story. The rail lobbyists have fought against rail safety for a hundred years.”  

Brown went on to lay out a list of parallels he sees between the current scenarios in the rail and banking industries. “When I first heard about Silicon Valley Bank, the first thing I thought was this is the same story. Corporate lobbyists with banks and railroads for 100 years have fought for weaker rules, weaker safety requirements. That’s what Norfolk Southern and the rail companies do. They lobby Congress. They too often get their way with the railroad’s regulators, and we see trains that derail much more frequently.” 

He went on to say, “We know what we need to do. That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation with my colleague, the new senator from Ohio. (Senator J.D. Vance) We want to address the number of (operators) on this train. The railroads, believe it or not, want a two- or three-mile train with 150 or 200 cars, with only one engineer on that train with no conductor. One engineer to drive a train that’s two to two and a half miles long with 150 to 200 cars. That makes no sense for the public interest.” 

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson addresses the attendees at the press conference Monday, March 20, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Following Sen. Brown, SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson made a statement of support for the bill as well as his vision for the future of the rail industry.  

“Sen. Brown has seen firsthand what the devastation looks like when we let profits dictate the safest course of action to take when moving America’s freight by rail,” President Ferguson said. “We look forward to working tirelessly with Sen. Brown and his team to realize his vision for a safer and stronger rail industry. This bill offers a chance for the nation to require the highly profitable rail corporations to take rational measures to get the industry to do what it’s designated to do. Which is move freight through our nation safely and efficiently.” 

Ferguson then spoke directly to those in power, saying, “We owe it to the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and to all the communities that have railroad tracks running through them to have the members of Congress do the right thing. Take back control of our nation’s supply chain from Wall Street’s profit-at-any-cost mentality.” 

President Ferguson rounded out his public statement offering this endorsement for the Railway Safety Act of 2023. “This bill has the potential to put safe operations into its rightful place as the gold standard for railroading, and not what the next quarterly report can bring.” 

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson shake hands following the press event Monday, March 20, in Cleveland Ohio.

This statement summed up what rail labor has been saying since Hunter Harrison brought PSR to CSX in 2017. Our safety and our ability to provide a reasonable work-life balance for our loved ones does matter. The time is now to end the industry’s experiment with PSR and get back to safe, sensible and efficient railroading that preserves the safety of general public and of worker alike.  

SMART-TD is very grateful to Sens. Brown, Vance and their colleagues who have sponsored this legislation for their leadership. We also are appreciative for the opportunity to make SMART-TD part of the discussion. The light they have shed on our issues and the amplification of our concerns has been incredibly helpful in our fight against PSR. 

Brown plans additional appearances around the state this week to discuss the legislation. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment.”  The hearing will start at approximately 10:45 am ET, following a 10 a.m. mark-up.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker will be among those testifying at the hearing along with Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, a local first-responder from East Palestine and two carrier representatives.