SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director John Risch addressed the National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees (NARVRE) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 21, touching on the current national political climate and the need for retirees to step up to protect what is rightfully theirs amid renewed attacks on unions.
"What is happening in D.C. is what I call 'an erosion of civility,'" Risch told attendees at NARVRE's 41st Biennial Convention at the Hilton Garden Inn. "Add to that erosion the closeness of the numbers in each house of Congress, and you have a keen focus on the next election, not a keen focus on what's right for our country."
An explosion in deficit spending caused by the tax cuts and spending bills passed by Congress at the end of last year once again has fueled talk by some politicians of cutting so-called entitlements.
Politicians' eyes see the nest egg of Railroad Retirement -- the result of the hard work of current and past railroaders -- and would love to dive into that pension plan, Risch told the retirees.
NARVRE, an advocacy group out of Mississippi, has worked to preserve Railroad Retirement benefits for more than 80 years for members of all rail unions.
"When Speaker Paul Ryan and his crew talk about the need to rein in 'entitlements,' you need to know that what they want to cut is your Railroad Retirement benefits and reduce your Medicare coverage," he said. "Something you already paid for, but since the government used the money for things like tax cuts for the railroads, they want to break the agreements that were made with all of us."
Those attacks should rouse retirees and active workers alike to action, Risch said.
"When the debt and deficit debate starts in earnest, we need NARVRE, and more importantly, NARVRE members to shout out: 'No to any cuts in our pension, Medicare and Medicaid.' Our union, of course, will be there, but we can't do it alone," Risch said. "Your grassroots response is the only thing that will stop substantial cuts to these vital safety nets."
Greedy corporate interests also are looking to tear unions down these days. The Janus case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court could kill "union security clauses," allowing those who don't pay dues to leech off public unions, he told attendees.
"It's Janus and public employees today, and the rest of us will be next," Risch said.
Other threats include the potential of automation to further whittle away railroad jobs and for politicians to eliminate Amtrak in the name of savings. These scenarios would have a catastrophic effect on Railroad Retirement's sustainability.
But speaking out can help preserve what Risch calls the "crown jewel" that rail workers created.
"It's not NARVRE or the rail unions that will protect our pension," he said. "It's the grassroots efforts of our members and people like all of you in this room -- people who demand of their congressional delegation that Amtrak gets the money it needs; who demand that Congress keep their hands off our Railroad Retirement and Medicare," Risch said.
"The good news is very few Americans are politically active, meaning those that are have far more clout then they should. So I'm calling on each of you to use that clout. Call your elected representatives, attend their town hall meetings and speak out. That's what's effective."