Reported by Joanna Marsh for Freightwaves.
Rail labor groups are rallying around Surface Transportation Board Chairman Marty Oberman, saying calls to strip him of his position misdiagnose the root cause of the industry’s woes: operational challenges associated with precision scheduled railroading (PSR).
“We firmly believe that removing Chair Oberman or failing to reappoint him would undermine the significant progress the Board has made during his tenure,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, in a Tuesday letter to President Joe Biden.
In May, three progressive groups wrote to Biden asking that he remove Oberman from his chairmanship of STB and replace him with fellow board member Robert Primus.
Revolving Door Project, RootsAction and FreedomBLOC said the chairman mishandled the merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern. They argued that Oberman and fellow board members should have rejected the merger over antitrust concerns. The groups sought to replace Oberman with Primus, the only board member who voted against the merger.
But two union groups — TTD and a coalition comprising 13 individual rail labor unions — each sent letters to Biden urging him to keep Oberman on board as STB chair because of how he has handled rail shipper and labor concerns and scrutinized the railroads on their service records.
“Put bluntly, the position advanced by the three organizations is wrong. Chair Oberman has our full support, and he has earned the continued support of this administration. Removing him or failing to reappoint him would only undermine the progress made by the STB under his tenure,” said the letter from the 13 labor groups.
“Chair Oberman and the other members of the current STB have valued the opinions of rail unions and ensured that the voices and interests of rail workers are heard. Chair Oberman has aggressively questioned railroad representatives in STB proceedings when the assertions of the railroads seemed to be without evidentiary support or appeared to be premised on false assumptions,” the letter continued. “Chair Oberman and other Members of the current Board peppered the applicants in the recent merger cases with numerous probing questions, challenged facile assertions made by the applicants, and encouraged applicants to accommodate the concerns of other interested parties as conditions for Board approval of those transactions.”
Instead of looking at the CP-KCS merger as representative of key issues within the freight rail industry, those seeking Oberman’s removal should look at the impact that PSR, a tool used by the Class I railroads to streamline operations, has had on the industry, labor representatives said.
“We agree with the three organizations’ concerns about the state of the rail industry and the rampant problems that exist. But their ire is misplaced, and their views as to what should be done to remedy the problems fail to understand how we got to the current state of affairs, and how best to respond,” the 13 rail unions said. “The real problem with service and safety in the rail industry is not the concentration in the industry, but the hijacking of the industry by hedge funds and so-called ‘activist investors.’”
The rail unions continued: “The path to necessary changes is a reinvigorated regulatory regime, both at the STB and Federal Railroad Administration. This does not mean reinstating a regime that was created when there was no competition to rail by other modes of transportation; but, rather, by creation of a regime that fits the industry that exists today, not the one that existed 40 years ago. We trust Chair Oberman to spearhead the regulatory effort in that regard. Chair Oberman deserves and has our full support in return for his work.”
The 13 groups that signed the one letter were Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; National Conference of Firemen and Oilers; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Transportation Workers – Mechanical and Engineering Division; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; Transport Workers Union; Transportation Communications Union; American Train Dispatchers Association; Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division; Brotherhood of Railway Carmen; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
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