National Legislative Office

Welcome to the website of the National Legislative Office of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Rail Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This site is intended to be a resource for BLET members, as well as anyone who is interested in the legislative and regulatory activities of our union.

As the site evolves it is our hope that it will be a useful tool in helping the BLET to continue to maintain, expand and deepen its relationships with Congress, labor leaders, government agencies and the general public.     Read Vice President Tolman's welcome message...

June 26, 2012

Whistleblower rights under attack; BLET fights back

CLEVELAND, June 26 — The railroad industry has launched a coordinated attack on rights enacted by Congress as part of the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA).

These “whistleblower” rights, which are contained in Section 20109 of Title 49 of the United States Code, protect BLET members and other railroad workers from harassment and intimidation when they report or participate in an investigation of injuries and safety violations, when they seek prompt medical treatment for on-the-job injuries, or when they follow their physician’s treatment plans.

A major battle is being fought out in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) has sued Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. NS seeks to overturn a decision by the Administrative Review Board (ARB) of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) affirming an earlier decision by an OSHA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that railroad workers may pursue whistleblower claims in addition to labor agreement disciplinary appeals when their rights are violated by a railroad.

The ALJ had ruled that both avenues are available to railroad workers because subsection (h) of Section 20109 states that “[n]othing in this section shall be deemed to diminish the rights, privileges, or remedies of any employee … under any collective bargaining agreement.”

NS, with the support of the Association of American Railroads, seeks to overturn this decision, claiming that railroad workers who appeal their dismissals are barred from pursuing a whistleblower claim by FRSA subsection (g), which states that an “employee may not seek protection under both this section and another provision of law for the same allegedly unlawful act of the railroad carrier.” The carriers argue that the right to appeal discipline for alleged rules infractions to a Section 3 adjustment board under the Railway Labor Act constitutes “protection under another provision of law”, not from a collective bargaining agreement.

The ALJ ruling upheld by the ARB was issued in a case involving the whistleblower rights of a BLET member wrongfully terminated by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP). The ARB decision came in a consolidated appeal with an NS conductor’s complaint, which opened the door to the NS court challenge.

The BLET member involved is a locomotive engineer who was discharged in November 2007. The BLET appealed on his behalf under the collective bargaining agreement and, when UP refused to put him back to work, successfully argued to a Section 3 arbitrator that his agreement rights were violated. On March 27, 2008, this member filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA, charging that he was illegally terminated for reporting an on-the-job injury.

The National Division has requested the court’s permission to intervene in NS’s lawsuit in defense of this Brother’s whistleblower rights, and join Secretary Solis’s Motion to Dismiss the case.

“This is nothing more than an attempt by NS, UP, and the other carriers to silence our members and strip them of important whistleblower protections provided under the FRSA,” BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce said. “Railroad workers should not be subject to dismissal when they are injured on the job. These whistleblower protections are needed to stop railroads from harassing and intimidating workers who speak out about safety.”

The whistleblower decision NS is attempting to overturn is just one of several OSHA decisions that have gone against that carrier. On June 18, OSHA announced that NS has been fined over $800,000 for unlawfully firing workers who reported on the job injuries, including $525,000 for punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The carrier also has been ordered to expunge the disciplinary records of the whistleblowers, post workplace notices regarding railroad workers’ whistleblower protection rights and provide training to its workers about these rights.

Newspapers throughout the United States have published reports regarding harassment and intimidation of NS employees. None was more critical than the Virginian-Pilot, based in Roanoke, Va., where NS is headquartered. In an opinion column dated June 21, 2012, the newspaper reported that OSHA’s ruling had tarnished the railroad’s safety achievements over the years in winning the industry’s highest award for safety, the E. H. Harriman Award.

According to the newspaper: “Discouraging reports of injuries doesn’t improve safety. Changing that practice might cost Norfolk Southern an award, but it would help the company — and workers — in the long run.”

NS is not the only Class I carrier that has caught OSHA’s attention. Early this month the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health slammed attorneys for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) for asking OSHA to disclose the names of non-management employee witnesses the agency intended to interview in several other ongoing whistleblower investigations.

BNSF officials had taken the ludicrous position that it should be able to “offer its representation” to these non-management witnesses. BNSF also asserted that it had a right to be present during any OSHA interview of a non-management witness. In a letter to BNSF’s General Counsel, Assistant Secretary David Michaels rejected the BNSF requests as “wholly inappropriate.”

“OSHA assumes that BNSF counsel would be well aware of the conflict of interest that would inevitably arise if BNSF’s attorney were to represent both the corporation and non-managerial employees in a whistleblower case … OSHA takes allegations of such retaliation extremely seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against witnesses who cooperate in FRSA whistleblower investigations,” Michaels wrote.

President Pierce responded to Assistant Secretary Michaels on behalf of all BLET members in a June 25 letter, thanking him for his “strongly worded rebuke of BNSF’s request and its position,” and supporting the agency’s “position in respecting employee confidentiality as complete, unequivocal and paramount in cases such as this.”

In response to the growing need for education and information to increase awareness and use of whistleblower protections throughout the Organization, the National Division is providing all General Chairmen, State Legislative Board Chairmen, Local Chairmen and Legislative Representatives this latest information concerning the industry’s attempt to thwart whistleblower investigations and enforcement of worker protections.

“In the NS/UP case you can see the railroads are doing everything in their power to prevent railroad workers from exercising their whistleblower rights,” President Pierce said. “And BNSF is attempting to uncover the identities of those who may be testifying in whistleblower cases in an effort to directly interfere in OSHA investigations. These are the new tactics the nation’s railroads are using to continue their decades-old harassment and intimidation of railroad workers who are injured on the job — and we must fight them at every turn.”

Copies of OSHA’s press release concerning the NS fines, OSHA’s letter to BNSF’s Legal Department, National President Pierce’s response to the OSHA letter, and his letter to BLET officers concerning this issue can be viewed, printed and/or downloaded from this link:
www.ble-t.org/pdf/Whistleblower_Circular.pdf

June 19, 2012

BLET legislative workshop preps officers for fall elections

CLEVELAND, June 19 — The BLET held a State Legislative Board Chairmen’s training workshop in Washington, D.C. from June 3 through 7, 2012. Twenty-four State Legislative Board Chairmen, Vice Chairman and Secretary-Treasurers from around the country attended the workshop, which covered issues such as the BLET-PAC, the 2012 elections and the duties of State Legislative Board Chairmen.

The workshop included three and a half days of classroom training, followed by one day of meetings on Capitol Hill with both House and Senate delegations after the workshop’s conclusion.

BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce addressed the group during the classroom training, providing an update on the activities of the BLET National Division and teaching a session on the BLET Bylaws.

In addition, First Vice President E. Lee Pruitt and National Secretary-Treasurer William C. Walpert addressed the group and provided updates on various aspects of the National Division’s operations. NST Walpert also taught during several other sections of the course.

Vice President & National Legislative Representative John P. Tolman participated in and led most of the sessions, including a session on the 2012 elections. He encouraged all of those in attendance to volunteer to work for candidates for office in their free time. He also moderated a roundtable discussion on growing the BLET-PAC.

Several guest speakers also addressed the group, including: Federal Railroad Administration Chief Counsel Melissa Porter; IBT Director of Field and Political Action Christy Bailey; IBT Federal Political Director Nicole Brener-Schmitz; and IBT State Political and Legislative Director Dan Reilly.

Various portions of the workshop covered: legislative and regulatory research, which included a hands-on research project; a presentation regarding the BLET national mobilization network; leadership skills; Department of Labor reports; online audits; and communications.

The following also made presentations to the group: BLET State Legislative Board Chairmen Terry Briggs (Texas), Tim Smith (California) and Craig Gilchrist (Montana); and National Division staff members Ken Kroeger, Kent Confer, Vince Verna, Gail Carson and Kathleen Policy.

On June 7, the group met with over 150 members of their Congressional delegations. These meetings focused on the Railroad Retirement issues raised in the Ryan budget and the possible delay in the implementation of Positive Train Control currently being discussed as a part of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization in the Conference Committee. The BLET representatives educated the members of the House and Senate about the BLET’s position on these issues.

“At their root, both of these issues are part of a larger war on workers,” President Pierce said. “One is a blatant attack on largely unionized railroad workers and another one is an example of corporate greed being placed before worker and community safety. The timing of this class couldn’t have been better as it allowed our members to speak with many Representatives and Senators at a crucial time. We need to continue to ensure the BLET’s voice is heard on both of these issues.”

Vice President Tolman thanked everyone involved in making the workshop a success.

“The attendees were a mix of newer State Chairmen and those with more experience,” he said. “Throughout the week, this group was able to share ideas, experiences and knowledge. It was truly great to see that level of collaboration and teamwork happening, and I thank all of those who participated.”

May 8, 2012

BLET marks 149th anniversary today; prepares for 150th in 2013

CLEVELAND, May 8 — As the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) marks its 149th anniversary today, National President Dennis R. Pierce announced the formation of a special committee to help the Organization celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2013.

“Our Brotherhood will celebrate its 150th anniversary on May 8, 2013, and set yet another benchmark for the North American labor movement,” President Pierce said. “In an effort to ensure that our observance of this historic event is truly memorable, I am establishing the BLET’s 150th Anniversary Planning Committee. The committee will work as a group to prepare our celebration and will be comprised of members and officers, active and retired, who will plan, coordinate and execute a very special commemoration of our Brotherhood’s major milestone. I am confident that our team’s effort will produce a celebration that all BLET members will point to with pride.”

The BLET is the oldest labor union in the United States, founded as the Brotherhood of the Footboard on May 8, 1863 in Marshall, Mich. In 1864, delegates changed the name of the organization to Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the name it held for 140 years. In 2004, the BLE merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and became BLET. The BLET is the founding member of the Teamsters Rail Conference. Today, the union represents 55,000 hard working professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States.

President Pierce said details regarding the 150th anniversary celebration will be announced as plans become finalized over the next several months.

NTSB cites fatigue in fatal 2011 rear-end collision

CLEVELAND, May 8 — The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that crew member fatigue was a major cause of a fatal rear-end collision involving a BNSF coal train and a standing maintenance of way equipment train in Red Oak, Iowa, that occurred on April 17, 2011.

Killed in the accident were BLET Division 642 President Tom Anderson, 48, and his conductor, UTU member Patricia Hyatt.

“Once again, this investigation draws attention to the dangers of human fatigue,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “The human body is not designed to work irregular schedules, especially during the circadian trough, when our bodies are at their lowest alertness.”

At its April 24 hearing in Washington, D.C., the NTSB determined that both crew members were asleep at the time of the accident. Representing the BLET at the hearing were Carl Fields, Coordinator of the Safety Task Force (STF), and Dan Lauzon, a STF Primary Investigator.

“The striking coal train conductor’s and the engineer’s irregular work schedules contributed to their being fatigued on the morning of the collision,” the NSTB concluded. “Based on the conductor’s and the engineer’s irregular work schedules, their medical histories, and their lack of action before the collision, both crew members on the striking coal train had fallen asleep due to fatigue.”

The NTSB also concluded that the absence of Positive Train Control (PTC) contributed to the accident, although it likely would have not prevented this particular accident, which occurred while the BNSF coal train was governed by restricted speed operating rules.

Additionally, the absence of crashworthiness standards for modular locomotive cabs contributed to the severity of damage to the locomotive cab of the striking coal train.

In responding to the release of the NTSB’s Report, BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce said: “While we applaud the Board’s acknowledgement of the unacceptable risks posed by crew fatigue, the Report published on April 17 should have expanded on the fact that the accident occurred during the circadian trough, and that the crew was operating into the direction of a rising sun. Any experienced locomotive engineer or trainman can tell you that these particular operating environments pose an identifiable risk when operating at restricted speed.

“The NTSB also failed to address the other issues concerning restricted speed operations — including harassment of crews for operating too slowly at restricted speed — that we raised in our response to Safety Recommendation R-11-10, which was issued in connection with this accident and four others,” Pierce added. “And we remain unwavering in our opposition to NTSB’s reiterated recommendation that railroads be required to install inward-facing video cameras and engage in constant surveillance of operating crews for disciplinary purposes.”

FRA issues Safety Advisory 2012-02 regarding restricted speed

CLEVELAND, May 8 — The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published Safety Advisory 2012-02 on April 25 to remind railroads and their employees of the importance of complying with restricted speed operating rules.

BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce strongly condemned the “blame the worker” tone of the Safety Advisory. He warned BLET members to be on alert as the Safety Advisory recommends that railroads “…increase the level of operational testing with regard to the operation of trains on main tracks at restricted speed.”

President Pierce said: “The NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the railroad industry should keep in mind that railroading is a complex system of operations and simply laying blame at the feet of operating employees will not get to the root cause of these accidents nor will it prevent similar accidents in the future. Indeed, everyone can — and should — go much further than simply conducting additional and burdensome compliance tests on operating crews.”

The Safety Advisory is a follow up to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Safety Recommendation No. R-11-10, issued on January 12, 2012. It also comes on the heels of a NTSB hearing held April 24 regarding the fatal rear-end collision involving a BNSF coal train and a standing maintenance of way equipment train in Red Oak, Iowa, which happened on April 17, 2011.

“Railroad operating rules governing restricted speed require that train crews be prepared to stop within one-half their range of vision,” the FRA wrote in the April 25 edition of the Federal Register. “During the previous 12 months, the railroad industry has experienced six rear end collisions that resulted in four employee fatalities, [and] eight employee injuries…. It appears these six incidents may have occurred because the train crews did not properly identify and comply with block and interlocking signal indications that required operation of their trains at restricted speed.”

The Safety Advisory indicates that main line rear-end collisions are seldom caused by one single factor, but stressed that train crew members must maintain constant situational awareness while in the cab.

“[E]ven slight lapses in situational awareness, particularly when operating trains on ‘Approach’ and ‘Restricting’ signal indications can lead to tragedy,” the FRA wrote.

FRA also warned against the practice of ‘‘self dispatching.’’

“Self-dispatching is the operation of a train based on assumptions about the locations of other trains. These assumptions are sometimes developed through overheard radio conversations among other train crew members.”

As part of Safety Advisory 2012-02, the FRA issued five recommendations to railroads. They are as follows:

1. Review with operating employees the circumstances of the six rear end collisions identified above.

2. Discuss the requirements of restricted speed and related operational tests at future instructional classes (and also as part of ad hoc coaching and briefings) for operating employees, with a focus on the railroad’s absolute speed limit for such operations, as well as requirements that ensure the ability to stop in one-half the range of vision. Special emphasis should be placed on situations in which the range of vision is limited (e.g., curves).

3. Evaluate quarterly and 6-month reviews of operational testing data as required by Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section 217.9, and, as appropriate, increase the level of operational testing with regard to the operation of trains on main tracks at restricted speed. A representative number of operational tests should be conducted on trains following other trains into an occupied block, particularly in high-density corridors. Operational tests should also include a review of locomotive event recorder data to verify compliance with restricted speed requirements.

4. Reinforce the importance of communication between crew members located in the controlling locomotive, particularly during safety critical periods when multiple tasks are occurring, including such activities as copying mandatory directives; closely approaching or passing fixed signals that require trains to operate at restricted speed; approaching locations where trains’ movement authority is being restricted; and during radio conversations with other employees or job briefings about work to be done at an upcoming location.

5. Review with operating employees the requirements of subpart C of 49 CFR part 220, and reinforce that the improper use of electronic devices during safety critical periods often leads to a loss of situational awareness and resultant dangers.

In his response to the NTSB Safety Recommendation No. R-11-10, President Pierce informed the NTSB that at least one BLET member is fighting to get his job back — with the help of his Local Division and his General Committee of Adjustment — after being dismissed for allegedly delaying his train by operating too slowly while traveling at restricted speed, in order to avoid failing a banner compliance test the Carrier had set up just ahead of his train.

In warning BLET members to heighten their vigilance when operating at restricted speed President Pierce said, “The FRA was provided a copy of our response to the NTSB, and I am outraged the agency is recommending that railroads expose our membership to even further harassment when they do not toe the line to an ‘efficiency above all else’ mentality. All BLET members are urged to exercise extra caution when operating at restricted speed to protect their safety and their jobs, and I am directing all BLET Local Chairman to immediately notify my office if one of our members is charged by a carrier with delaying the train or otherwise operating too slowly when being governed by restricted speed.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Full copy of FRA Safety Advisory 2012-02:
www.ble-t.org/pr/pdf/Safety_Advisory_2012_02.pdf

BLET response to NTSB Safety Recommendation R-11-10 regarding restricted speed:
www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5243

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