BLET NEWS FLASH
By Dennis R. Pierce
BLET National President
(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Journal.)
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, February 23 — One of any Union’s primary responsibilities is to negotiate for and defend the benefits that make union jobs the best jobs in our proud country. It is no secret — as all members should be well aware — that the railroads are attempting in our national contract negotiations to diminish the quality of our health care benefits. In fact, the primary reason for our national freight contract not being settled is due to your employers’ demands that you pick up significantly more of the cost of your health care. You have had no contract to vote on because I have heard loud and clear how you view such a contract; you would never ratify it.
Instead, we have entered into mediation under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Although our primary goal is to reach a voluntary settlement that our members would ratify, it is also becoming painfully clear that we may have to exhaust the terms and conditions of the RLA, including the point where we reach the right to strike, in order to defend our current benefits.
While our ongoing contract negotiations are getting the bulk of our attention, it is critical that we not let our guard down on the many other benefits that all members count on. As I have explained in the past, the benefits that we count on, and in some cases take for granted, are a combination of collectively bargained benefits, legislated benefits and regulatory benefits that often generate from legislation.
The election cycle of 2016 is over, and I have heard from many members who want our Union to get past the election and concentrate on the future, not the past. I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments, but with a new government now in control in Washington, we must all keep a watchful eye on how they approach governance. Many members have been clear that they want labor to give the new administration a chance, but I don’t think they expect their Union to let its guard down when it comes to corporate America’s efforts to strip you of benefits that you earned and paid for with your labor.
My efforts in the coming months will be to do just that. We cannot allow corporate power and wealth to strip working class Americans of protections and benefits that they have earned. One such benefit is our Railroad Retirement program. You will recall that House Speaker Ryan previously suggested that our retirement benefits be reduced, and we asked you then to show our collective strength in telling him to leave our benefits alone.
We must continue to be vigilant as efforts to reduce Social Security benefits are already being discussed, and we must be ready to again defend any similar attacks on our Railroad Retirement system. Dismissing these attacks as “fake news” because we don’t like them is not going to prevent the attacks from happening. This is real; there are groups out there whose agenda is to strip you of your retirement and related health care benefits, and they are working hard in the new congress to advance that agenda. We are closely monitoring these efforts, and if they gain steam, we will immediately need all working and retired railroad employees to rise up and demand that this new government keep its hands off of our retirement benefits. We have earned our retirement benefits with our own sweat and tears; it is not some so-called entitlement that the government should trifle with.
The same is true of our Medicare benefits. I entered the work force in 1976, 11 years after the 1965 Medicare Amendment to the Social Security Act legislatively created the Medicare system. As a result, and as with almost all railroad employees actively working today, I have paid into the Medicare system from every paycheck that I have received since I entered the workforce. Like Railroad Retirement, this is no entitlement that the government should trifle with, it is a benefit that I bought and paid for.
Don’t fall for the suggestion that you should work longer to get those benefits, or that the Medicare system should be changed to create a voucher system where you are thrown to the open market to buy health insurance in your later years. These are not ideas promoted by, or intended to help working class Americans; they are ideas promoted by corporate lobbyists like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the anti-worker Koch brothers. Their goal is to relieve your employers of their costs to run these programs, even though that cost has long been figured into your legislatively mandated benefits package. If their effort to strip you of those benefits gains steam, we will again be calling on all active and retired railroad employees to be heard loud and clear: KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF THE BENEFITS THAT I BOUGHT AND PAID FOR WITH MY LABOR.
I also want to briefly mention the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and its legislative impact to our health and welfare program. This is not fake news either; Congress has already moved to repeal the ACA, but as this Journal is going to print, it has yet to present a cohesive replacement. While many of you have been led to believe that the ACA was a problem, it is important for you to understand how it also helped those of us with health insurance primarily provided by our employers.
One of the core pieces of the ACA is the inclusion of your children as covered dependents from age 19 to 26 without any requirement that those children be in college, and regardless of whether they still live at home and/or remain single. This legislated benefit came at no cost to you because of the ACA, but it is not a free benefit to your employers. From the U.S. Government’s data:
“It’s estimated by HHS that 5.7 million young adults (aged 19-25) stayed on a parent’s plan until age 26. That is 2.3 million who stayed on their parents plan from 2010 to 2013 with an estimated 3.4 million gaining coverage from 2013 to 2015.”
Within our National Health Care Plan, it is estimated that between 28,000 and 30,000 dependent children of union represented railroad workers currently receive this coverage at no cost to you, their parents. Instead, the law required your employer to provide these benefits, again, at no cost to you. Data provided in January of 2017 shows those additional costs for your dependent children to have been $76.6 million in 2016, with projected costs of $87.4 million in 2017 and $92.6 million in 2018.
Another legislated benefit of the ACA was the right to receive Expanded Preventive Care, without cost sharing by you. Those costs were $12.6 million in 2016, with projected costs of $12.7 million in 2017 and $13.5 million on 2018. Together, these two forms of coverage will cost your employers over $100 million in 2018, unless the ACA is repealed by the new congress and administration, as they have both threatened to do. I don’t have to tell you how important this employer-sponsored coverage is to our children as they try to make their way in today’s tough jobs market.
Unfortunately, the corporate-led effort to take away this coverage has already gained steam, and if the ACA is fully repealed — as has been promised — the railroads will stop providing those benefits. It is imperative that your voice be heard on this issue. These are not benefits that belong to only Republicans, Democrats or Independents; they are benefits being provided to all working class Americans regardless of political affiliation. They don’t cost you money and they don’t raise your taxes; they, too, have become a legislated part of your employer-sponsored benefits. Help us in our fight to defend them.
One final comment on the ACA. When the bargaining round began, the chances of the ACA being repealed were remote. The railroads’ efforts to diminish your benefits by pushing additional costs on you made no mention of the above-noted costs that the ACA put on the railroads. That has obviously changed, with the railroads positioned to gain a huge financial windfall at your children’s expense if the ACA is repealed without protecting the current provisions for your dependents between 19 and 26 years of age. We have insisted that the railroads maintain that coverage whether the law requires it or not, but the railroads have scoffed at that idea. It has been said that corporations are without a conscience, and nothing could be closer to the truth in this case. Even though the additional ACA costs were built into the health care plan at the beginning of the bargaining round, your employers not only want you to incur additional costs through plan design changes, they are also looking to strip your children of the coverage to reap an additional windfall from your benefit plan.
Finally, I must address recent developments concerning so-called Right to Work (For Less) legislation that has of this printing been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Don’t be fooled by the flashy name suggesting that working class Americans are gaining a “right.” This legislation is not being pushed by working class Americans, it is being pushed by corporate lobbyists because it creates a world where working class Americans make less money and have fewer benefits. This is not fake news; it’s real factual information that is readily available. A Union pay scale raises all pay scales, and once it is gone, it is the corporations that will benefit, not the working class Americans, whose labor generates the corporate profits.
At its core, Right to Work legislation centers on turning you against your co-workers and your union, solely in an effort to defund your union. Those pushing this legislation don’t want a Union in their way when they go to eliminate the protections that I have described above. They don’t want a Union fighting for your Railroad Retirement, your Medicare, the ACA, or your Collectively Bargained wages and benefits. They would have you believe that we are all “rugged individualists” that can do better on our own.
Our forefathers who founded our Union knew better than that; they knew that employees joining together to fight for fair pay and fair benefits would benefit them, and the entire working class. The Union movement isn’t perfect, and it has over the years had both successes and failures. But in the long run, the real facts show that you make more money and have better benefits in a unionized workplace, and the railroad industry is one workplace where that is crystal clear. Non-union railroad employees, many doing the same work that you do, make up to one-third less with far less in benefits. Don’t fall for the fake news that you would be better off on your own. You are the Union, and the Union is stronger when you are an active part of it; everyone gets weaker when you are not. We must be diligent if we are to defend what is ours. As has been said, “It’s not paranoia when they are actually shooting at you.” Shots have been fired. Join me in our ongoing struggle to defend what is yours.