UTU political strength praised in retirement fight

June 19, 2012

Among the numerous political challenges facing working families is preservation of Railroad Retirement and Social Security, which are both under attack by political conservatives.

As the UTU’s Portland, Ore., regional meeting commenced June 18, the labor member of the Railroad Retirement Board, Walt Barrows (pictured at left) told attendees, “You can be very proud of your leadership and your legislative staff. You have the best legislative team of any union, bar none. [The UTU is] in the forefront of defending our retirement system against those who try to weaken it.”

Echoing those sentiments was Joe Nigro, general president of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA), who said the UTU has “the best political machine” among labor organizations, which is essential in the fight to preserve Railroad Retirement and Social Security.

Nigro said the SMWIA and the UTU – now combined as SMART – “share the goal of achieving power and success to make legislators, other unions and employers look to us for leadership and training.” SMART, he said, is creating “a bigger, better, stronger and members’ oriented union that represents its members aggressively.”

Barrows, a senior officer of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman before being nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to the three-member Railroad Retirement Board to represent the interests of labor, warned that “the trend of attacking and eliminating defined benefit pension plans across the country will continue.

“In the last 30 years, defined benefit plans have been stripped away from most workers,” Barrows said. “We have seen defined benefit plans replaced by tax deferred savings accounts, like 401(k) plans and other less desirable substitutes [and] with the decline of defined benefit plans, far too many Americans cannot retire with any sense of dignity or security.

“Wondering if you will be able to receive a steady income during your retirement years is important to you and your family when you consider retirement,” Barrows said. “Railroad Retirement gives you that assurance. You can rest assured that when you are ready to retire, the Railroad Retirement Board and the Railroad Retirement system will be there for you.

“You would think that the strength and solvency of our system would exempt us from attacks, but our retirement system is never totally safe from attack. A recent House budget resolution [introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)] proposed massive changes to our retirement system. While this proposal will not go anywhere this year, it again demonstrates that rail workers must remain vigilant if we expect our retirement system is there for us and for future generations of rail workers.

“Since the establishment of the Railroad Retirement system 76 years ago, labor has fought to protect and preserve these benefits,” Barrows said. “The longevity and stability of our Railroad Retirement is a testament to strength of rail workers standing together. But we all must be vigilant to make sure that our retirement system is there for us and for future generations of rail workers and their families.

“It is now up to us to ensure that our retirement system is there to provide protection and retirement security for future generations,” Barrows said. “So when we hear retirement benefits attacked, and when we hear them referred to as entitlements, remind people that railroad workers are entitled. 

“We are entitled,” Barrows said, “because we worked for it. We are entitled because we sacrificed for it. We are entitled because we contributed to it. And we are entitled because the profits enjoyed by the railroad industry came from our blood and sweat. Nobody gave us anything. We earned it.

“And as your member on the Railroad Retirement Board, it is an honor for me to stand here today to tell you that I will fight to protect our retirement system,” Barrows said.