Today's Headlines


BLE cites financial questions in calling off unification talks with UTU

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers called off a planned merger with the United Transportation Union six months after the two groups announced the rail industry's first major consolidation of its unions since the late 1960's.

Monday's announcement appeared to signal the imminent resumption of inter-union feuding between the unions whose members are engineers, conductors and brakemen, the Journal of Commerce said.

The move marked the latest step in an often stormy relationship between the unions that represent approximately 100,000 active train crew workers in the U.S. Before the merger talks reached a unification agreement, leaders of the two unions battled periodically for at least the past three decades.

BLE made an announcement Monday that its advisory board had determined that UTU did not complete a financial report by May 1, that was said to be needed to meet the expected Oct. 1 date when members of both unions would vote on the unification plan.

If it had proceeded, the combined union would have represented more than 40% of the active union workers on U.S. railroads.

BLE's advisory board on the merger passed a resolution saying "the BLE must prepare for a difficult fight with the carriers in the fast approaching round of collective bargaining. Our attention and energy should be devoted to preparation for bargaining. UTU has failed to provide the essential financial information. Because of the UTU's refusal to provide critical financial information, all discussions ... should be and hereby are terminated this eighth day of May."

In a statement, UTU president Charles Little said "one of the world's largest and most respected accounting firms today completed the audit of our finances and said our operation is sound and does not have any 'material weaknesses'. We believe the BLE used financial concern as a 'red herring' excuse to withdraw from unification talks."

UTU's response said it was "preparing to ask the National Mediation Board to sanction a representation election among train and engine service employees on Union Pacific Railroad."

A proposal early in 1998 for a representation election on the UP indirectly led to the merger talks.

The UTU attempted to convince the National Mediation Board, overseer of rail labor negotiations, that the BLE made errors in the representation process at UP that were substantial enough to require the federal agency to call an election. UTU, with an approximate 2-1 voting advantage over the smaller BLE, likely would have won that election.

BLE compared the representation election process to a takeover effort and challenged the effort both within the rail union movement and before the NMB. BLE won support from other unions, but NMB never acted on the representation election request that was held in abeyance as merger talks progressed.

After several months of charges and counter charges, the two unions were convinced in the summer of 1998 to stop battling and begin discussions to see if differences could be resolved.

Those discussions produced the merger agreement that was to have matured into a full combination of the unions late in 1999.

FRA announces improved safety standards for passenger trains

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Transportation yesterday released its first comprehensive list of federal passenger railroad standards.

The rules, released by the Federal Railroad Administration, spell out a variety of safety requirements that will have to be met by Amtrak, commuter railroads and other short-haul operators in metropolitan and suburban areas.

Among those exempted are subway systems, while different rules will be crafted for tourist, excursion and historic railroads.

To date passenger railroads have operated under a loose knit set of federal rules. In many respects, they have been responsible for establishing their own safety standards.

The new rules:

The new standard will be in the Federal Register, on May 12, 1999. In September 1994, the Secretary of Transportation outlined a plan to develop new safety standards for rail passenger equipment over a five-year period and in two phases. The FRA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on passenger equipment safety standards in June 1996 and a notice of proposed rulemaking in September 1997. Public comment from 34 separate parties were received in response.

In 1984, the railroad administration issued guidelines recommending test methods and performance standards for flammability and smoke emission characteristics of materials in passenger cars. Updated in 1989, the guidelines have been followed on a voluntary basis by passenger railroads.

FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris said that the rule does not apply to tourist, excursion or historic railroads. Requirements for such equipment will be developed separately. The rule will apply to Amtrak, commuter railroads, and other short-haul passenger operations in metropolitan and suburban areas, except for rapid transit operations that are not connected to the general railroad system.

Based on Monday's announcement, they will now become law. Amtrak, the nation's only intercity passenger railroad, withheld immediate comment on the new rules.

"We just got this, so there are a number of areas we have to look into in terms of the impact it will have on Amtrak," said spokesman John Wolf.

Honda workers mixed on Teamster, UAW bids

MARYSVILLE, Ohio (AP) -- After nearly 20 years with no union, workers at Honda's U.S. auto plants now have two unions in a dispute over who should represent them.

If the workers approve a union, it would be the first at any solely Japanese-owned auto plant in the United States. There are unions in plants that are joint ventures of Japanese and U.S. companies or that make models for both.

Honda boasts of a team atmosphere at its plants, where all employees -- from management to people on the assembly line -- are known as associates.

And some workers at the plants are strongly anti-union, and a couple hundred loyal employees demonstrated against a union last week in the streets of this central Ohio city of 10,000 people, about 30 miles northwest of Columbus.

"There's a time and a place for everything. I just don't think the time is now," said Michael Ferguson, a 27-year-old who makes brakes at plant in Anna. "It would be a different story if people were upset on a daily basis about the same thing and nothing was being done. But that's not the case."

Pro-union workers say they're upset over working conditions and retirement plans. They also allege Honda gives temporary workers -- who make around half the $20-per-hour permanent associates' average -- day shifts preferred by permanent workers. Honda denies the allegation.

The United Auto Workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board in 1985 and 1989, but never reached the point where workers voted on whether to join a union.

Teamsters officials say frustrated Honda workers came to them after getting nowhere with the United Auto Workers. But the UAW is disputing whether the Teamsters belong in an auto plant, and filed a complaint April 27 with the AFL-CIO seeking exclusive rights to organize the Honda plants in Ohio.

Teamsters Local 413 in Columbus says it has about 3,000 signatures from Honda workers, more than the 30 percent needed for the NLRB to approve a vote. The local says about 8,000 of the 13,200 employees in the state would be represented.

"We decided we were going to bring attention to these people," said Zeke Totten, an organizer with Local 413. "We didn't estimate we'd get more than 1,000 cards, maybe 2,000."

Both the UAW and the Teamsters are members of the AFL-CIO, and the labor federation will try to resolve the dispute over representation with mediation or arbitration, if necessary, spokeswoman Lane Windham said.

The UAW has refused to comment on the union turf dispute, and Honda is not taking any position on it.

Honda began producing motorcycles in Marysville in 1979 and over the years added two auto plants and an engine plant in Ohio.

Honda announced last week that it would build its third U.S. auto production plant in eastern Alabama.

Last month, Honda sent out a letter advising workers to "think twice before signing" a union authorization card. Spokesman Roger Lambert said employees were asking questions about the Teamsters' push.

"We respect everyone's right to say how they feel. It's one of the things we encourage here," Lambert said. "We haven't changed and we won't."

Jerry Sullivan, a 33-year-old motorcycle welder at the plant in Marysville, says accidents at work have led to surgeries on his ankle, wrist and forearm.

He said he that when he started with Honda 15 years ago as an assembly-line worker just out of high school, he was happy to have a full-time job at a growing plant and saw no need for a union then.

Now, he's among the workers talking to the Teamsters.

"When you're an 18-year-old kid it seems easy. You're not thinking about making it until you're 65," he said.

Gene Linkous, a 13-year Honda veteran who was among those pushing for UAW representation in the 1980s, said Sullivan's sentiments are typical.

"A lot of the young people (who didn't favor a union before) are now old people. The work force has now been beat in the ground," said Linkous, who works at the Marysville auto plant.

Honda's spokesman, Lambert, said the company's plants are among the safest in the auto industry.

Is your freight train a "Mobile Chernobyl"

From E, Environmental Magazine

(The following story examines the real-life dangers of nuclear and hazardous waste transport on the nation's rails.)

ITEM: In the predawn hours of April 11, 1996, along railroad tracks one mile west of the rural Montana community of Alberton, four Montana Rail Link tank cars suddenly derail. The largest mixed chemical release in railroad history -- and the second biggest chlorine spill -- sends a plume of more than 265,000 pounds of toxins into the air. Over 1,000 people are forced to flee their homes for what becomes a 17-day evacuation; one person dies, another 352 are injured. Residents still report respiratory ailments, memory loss, vision impairment, nerve damage and other lingering effects.

ITEM: At about 2:30 a.m. on July 1,1997, two Union Pacific freight trains collide outside the little town of Rossville, Kan. The tankers contain chlorine, sulfuric acid and nuclear materials. As an enormous fire sends up a massive dark cloud, all 1,100 residents are evacuated. Later it's determined that the chemical tankers had not caught fire -- the billowing smoke was instead from burning tires.

"Today's accident in Kansas," says a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, "sort of underlines our concern. ...Safety needs to be looked at much closer."

Indeed. And today, an ever-increasing volume of hazardous chemicals are moving on our nation's railways. And, if Congress has its way, they will soon be joined by tons of high-level nuclear waste bound for storage at Yucca Mountain, Nev. "The severity of risk is growing," says Sanford Lewis, a Boston-based attorney and author of a 1997 report, Hazardous Materials on the Rails, for the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries. "It's as if federal regulators have been asleep at the switch. They've been allowing the industry to set the terms of regulation, rather than taking aggressive action to put known and available safeguards into place."

According to Lewis' study, chemical shipments on trains increased by almost 30 percent between 1990 and 1995 -- from 1.4 million to 1.8 million car loadings annually. The nation's biggest hauler, Union Pacific (UP), operates a fleet of 2,100 cars daily, transporting chemicals along 36,000 miles of track spanning 23 states (most of the continental U.S. west of the Mississippi, with the majority of products coming from the Texas/Louisiana "chemical corridor.")

Since a 1996 merger with Southern Pacific (SP), UP's hazardous materials shipping has continued to grow. But the two firms' combined track record does not inspire confidence. Some 2,090 hazardous materials incidents were reported by UP and SP between 1991 and 1995. Most of these were smaller spills, such as leaks from tank cars and diesel engines, but UP also had 28 accidents involving chemical releases.

"According to Union Pacific itself," says Lewis' report, "approximately 10 percent of the railroad's 9,000 chemical tank car inspections (in 1996) found 'exceptions,' such as unlabeled or mislabeled tankers, or tops not positioned properly on tank cars." One surprise inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration found 37 percent of the cars in one UP railyard defective, including 96 with brake problems.

Consider then, the implications of moving high-level radioactive waste now being stored at dozens of nuclear power and weapons plants around the United States. According to a recent statement by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service: "If an interim storage facility is built at the Nevada test site, as is proposed in current legislation, thousands of truck and train shipments would move dangerous radioactive waste across the country, within one-half mile of 52 million people."

Passing through as many as 43 states, every rail cask would weigh up to 125 tons. Inside these, spent nuclear fuel or solid uranium and fission products would be stacked like pokerchips within metal tubes. Each of the cask's 24 fuel assemblies would contain 10 times the long-lived radioactivity that was released by the Hiroshima bomb. Little wonder that many environmental groups have termed this scenario a potential "Mobile Chernobyl." In November, NIRS, Public Citizen, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Sierra Club and 225 other organizations sent a letter/petition to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, demanding that the proposed Yucca Mountain repository be disqualified from further development. (Geologic problems identified at the site itself indicate the likelihood of eventual leaks, say opponents.)

As things stand, about 85 percent of all national rail transport is through "dark" areas, where automated signaling has not yet reached and dispatchers still issue radio-communicated "warrants" for train movements. Safer technologies, which could provide engineers with a warning when another train is approaching, have not been widely applied. At the same time that UP has increased its shipments, the company has down-sized its work force. This means that many employees are working longer hours, and have complained that they lack sufficient training for accident response.

Chemical rail transport remains exempt from federal and community environmental Right-to-Know laws, so there's no way for the average person to know when extremely dangerous phosgene gas or nuclear materials are passing through. Forcing such public disclosure is the initial thrust of a nationwide campaign/petition drive launched last July by victims of the 1996 Alberton, Mont., spill. The coalition also seeks to require railroads tore pair defective track (the cause of the Alberton disaster), and is calling for a phase-out of industrial chlorine use.

There is ample reason for Montanans to spearhead such an effort. An estimated 25,000 hazardous waste-filled rail cars pass through the state each year, along track that often does not meet federal safety standards. According to a 1998 state fact finding study issued by Congressional Quarterly, more toxic chemicals are released per person in Montana than anywhere else in the United States.

"Legal protection to protect people who've been harmed in these accidents is almost nonexistent," says Darrell Geist of the Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers grassroots group in Missoula. "There's no recourse in the law, other than personal tort claims, which can drag on for years and years. And since the accident here, we've found that what's happening with railroad transport of toxic chemicals around the country is a black hole when it comes to regulation."

For more information, contact Cold Mountain, (406)728-0867, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, (202)328-0002, Good Neighbor Project, (617)489-3686.

(Dick Russell is a contributing writer to E, the Environmental Magazine.)

Editor's note: On May 16-17, NBC will broadcast "Atomic Train."

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Updated Tuesday, May 11, 1999
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