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September 2021

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Kansas Passes 'Move Over' Law to Protect Utility Workers

Every utility worker has one: the near miss, the close call with a distracted driver, the driver who veers at the last second to avoid a utility truck. The encounters that leave a cloud of dust and tire smoke and hearts beating a thousand miles an hour up in a swaying bucket are particularly memorable.

Or maybe it is the worker themselves, eyes on the leaking gas main or up at a lineman, going about their job when a passing vehicle whizzes by a little too closely.

Sometimes, though, they don't make the escape and lives are lost and families broken.

Every state in the nation requires drivers to move over when emergency vehicles — police of all kinds, ambulances and fire engines — are on the side of the road, and more than half have the same protection for utility vehicles responding to outages, emergencies or just plain doing maintenance.

Until this year, Kansas wasn't one of them. Now, thanks to the hard work of former Topeka Local 304 organizer and political lead David Galvin, who was appointed Seventh District Lead Organizer effective July 15, and a bipartisan coalition of state political leaders, Kansas utility workers will be that much safer when they are hard at work.

For years, Galvin and the leadership of Topeka Local 304, including Business Manager John Garretson, had been trying to get a move over law in Kansas, but without much luck, Galvin said. He had high hopes for 2020, but then the pandemic shortened the legislative session and the bill's sponsor lost his election.

"It had come up in the past and never got traction. Then COVID, then our partner lost," Galvin said. "We just wanted legislation that would help workers, the guys in the field, union and not."

Happily, Galvin found a new partner in Ethan Corson, a newly elected state senator from Topeka who had just come over from the staff of the state Democratic Party.

"Together, we wrote the bill," Galvin said.

But, unlike Corson, most state elected officials in Kansas are Republicans. They outnumber Democrats more than two-to-one in the House and close to three-to-one in the Senate.

Galvin needed to find some friends.

The first was Sen. Mike Petersen, chair of the Transportation Committee.

"It was his efforts that got us a hearing and his efforts that won us support," Galvin said.

SB 167 passed the Senate unanimously in February.

The bill drew some concerns when it headed to the House. The state's peace officers and some municipalities pointed out that, as written, the bill gave utility vehicles the same status as emergency vehicles that carry red and blue flashers and they wanted to avoid any confusion, no matter how unlikely it was that a cherry picker would ever try to imitate a fire engine.

A quick rewrite with House Transportation Committee Chair Republican Rep. Richard Proehl ensuring utility truck flashers kept to shades of amber and red, and the bill was ready for a vote.

The April 8 vote in the Senate was, again, unanimous, but in the House, three out of 122 voted no. Galvin said the three no votes are no on pretty much everything.

"I can't even figure out why they would, but they do," Galvin said. "But look, most of the Republicans were with us and our members. Even though we may not always agree with those guys, the Republicans deserve the credit."

About a month later, the bill was sent to Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat whose chief of staff, Will Lawrence, is a member of Local 304 and the local's former lawyer.

Not only did Kelly sign the bill in May, she worked with Garretson and Galvin to plan an event that would bring some needed attention to the new law.

On Aug. 12, surrounded by a flotilla of cable, bucket and gas trucks and, in Galvin's words, "a monster contingent of our utility folks," Kelly ceremonially signed the bill again.

"She has always been a friend of working families and unions in particular," Galvin said. "It was nice to get us all together at the local and bring a few local TV stations to get the word out."

For now, enforcement will be limited to when a sheriff, trooper or local officer is nearby or, sadly, after an incident. There is always the possibility that the law will be amended to allow the use of the near ubiquitous dash cams most utilities are installing on their trucks or the GoPro cameras many linemen love to mount on top of their hard hats.

"The law provides some measure of added safety as is. If we need to go back and add more teeth, I am happy to think that we have a few more friends looking out for the safety of the worker out there than maybe we're used to. And I hope they would be open to hearing us out," Galvin said.


With its new law, Kansas joins dozens of other states in requiring motorists to move over to protect line crews working on the sides of roadways.

Colorado Leads Way in Labor-Backed Energy Legislation

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently signed legislation, some of it at Pueblo Local 12, that sets the stage for future labor-backed energy policy.

"We have long maintained that labor can and should be a partner in tackling the climate crisis," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Legislation like what's been passed in Colorado is a strong example of what that can look like."

Polis signed SB21-246 on June 22, making his state the first in the nation to pass an electrification policy with support from organized labor. The Colorado BlueGreen Alliance-backed legislation will help Coloradans upgrade to energy efficient electric appliances, furnaces and water heaters that will also keep their bills low and the air clean. The state's BlueGreen Alliance is a coalition of more than 20 labor and environmental organizations committed to creating clean energy jobs and preserving a healthy climate.

The bill aims to save money by directing utilities to create incentives for households and businesses to upgrade to energy-efficient electric appliances that reduce their bills. This increased efficiency will reduce indoor air pollution while also creating family-sustaining jobs.

"The transition to pollution-free buildings is a once-in-a-generation job creation opportunity for our members," said Local 68 Business Manager Jeremy Ross. "As businesses and industry take advantage of new rebates and incentives to upgrade to modern and clean electric systems, they create demand for local, qualified electrical workers."

On June 30, Polis visited Pueblo Local 12 to sign House Bill 1290, which calls for $15 million for the Office of Just Transition. The office supports coal workers and the communities dependent on those jobs as the state pivots toward other forms of energy, some of which are in the Pueblo area.

"The Office of Just Transition is to make sure that as we transition away from coal to cheaper forms of energy, and we save money for consumers ... that we don't leave behind those who have powered our state's prosperity for generations," Polis said.

The law includes $8 million to implement the transition plan and $7 million for a newly created fund for a coal transition worker assistance program. The funding, which Polis called a "an important down payment on helping people get the jobs of the future," will go to assistance programs for workers. Any remaining money would then go towards supporting family and other household members of coal transition workers. The plan also creates a pilot program to test coal transition work support programs.

Denver Local 111 Business Manager Rich Meisinger says the transition will help members employed at coal plants by giving them a pathway to a new job, or to retirement, depending on the member.

"Jobs in power plants are typically cradle-to-grave jobs. Most of our members take these jobs and work at the plants their entire careers. The only skills the worker has are skills that benefit the power plant," Meisinger said. "Since legislation is forcing the closure of the plants, the government should help those impacted workers. We won't have a just transition if we don't pay for it."

Polis also signed the Increasing Access to High-Quality Credentials bill, which provides financial incentives for participating school districts and charter schools to encourage high school students to enroll in and complete programs like internships, residencies and pre-apprenticeships.

"This bill could potentially help all the IBEW locals in the state," Meisinger said. "The money from HB 1290 can go to the creation of new training centers where we can do training for various certifications, including those needed for electric vehicle charging stations."


Colorado's new energy legislation aims to create good-paying jobs in the energy sector while also meeting climate goals, and does so with the backing of the IBEW and other labor unions.

A Fan in the White House has Railroad Workers
Hopeful for the Future

A handful of hope-inducing railroad measures and policies have emerged in Washington the past few months, making IBEW members in the union's Railroad branch cautiously optimistic that they could halt the devastating trend of railroad worker layoffs across all crafts in recent years.

"Having Joe Biden, a longtime champion of Amtrak and rail workers, in the White House has really buoyed our Railroad members," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. When he was in Congress, Biden famously commuted almost daily via Amtrak between Washington and his family's home in Delaware.

Biden's Build Back Better infrastructure plan includes tens of billions for Amtrak, freight rail and regional rail systems, money that would mean new jobs, overtime and stability for workers who have increasingly felt the pinch from dramatic cost-cutting in the industry.

In recent years, railroad workers by the thousands, across all crafts, have been furloughed following most major rail systems' implementation of something called "precision railroad scheduling." PSR, explained Railroad Director Al Russo, is a radical efficiency scheme that threatens rail workers' safety by drastically slashing jobs, consolidating rail services, and deferring facility and equipment maintenance, all with one accounting goal in mind: to increase profits by dramatically reducing the money a railroad spends on operations.

"Look, no one supports precision and efficiency more than the IBEW," Russo said. "But while the railroads are raking in record profits, our rail members are really hurting — the ones who have lost their jobs plus those left behind who are expected to do more work for the same pay while staying as safe as possible."

Last November, a majority of voters elected not just "Amtrak Joe" Biden but also worker-friendly majorities in both Houses of Congress, and rail is just one of the IBEW-related industries where the union's get-out-the-vote efforts are paying off.

In May, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Donald Payne of New Jersey formally asked the federal Government Accountability Office to study how PSR is affecting, among other things, rail workers and the safety and long-term management of the nation's railroads.

"Longer trains, unhappy shippers, and a workforce pushed to do more with less is not a model to chase after — unless you're on Wall Street," DeFazio said. "But we can't let hedge fund managers write the rules of railroading. This study … will help us find ways to address the impacts [of] this railroad management strategy."

Using PSR, railroads "are also evading federally mandated inspections, neglecting maintenance, and operating fewer but significantly longer trains," said Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, "a move that impacts the safety not only of rail workers, but of the communities through which these trains travel."

The information gathered by the GAO study should help bolster the IBEW's arguments against PSR, said Government Affairs Director Danielle Eckert. "Right now, the railroads have all the data," she said, "so when we say PSR is horrible for workers' safety, it's mostly anecdotal.

"We know we've had IBEW members get hurt in the wake of PSR while other unions have endured deaths," Eckert said. "Once the GAO collects actual data, we can refer to it over and over again to help our case."

Russo added that IBEW members also can help call attention to PSR's problems by emailing their observations to "It's more important than ever that every single rail member does his or her part to let leaders at the local, system council and international levels know what's going on in their workplaces," he said. "With fewer and fewer of our members out there right now, we need everyone to really step up and do their part to help us stay informed."

Over the last decade, the number of large U.S. railroads in the Class I category has dwindled dramatically due to a rapid series of mergers and acquisitions. This gradual reduction in competition has made it easier for these Class I's to behave like monopolies when it comes to pricing and service. In response, President Biden included railroads in an executive order encouraging competition in a range of transportation industries. Specifically, he called on the federal government's Surface Transportation Board to consider rulemaking that promotes competition and reduces delays in passenger rail service.

On the legislative front, Stephenson, Eckert and Russo have been working closely with the Biden administration and members of Congress to help ensure that any infrastructure bills put forward include provisions that help IBEW members and anyone else who works on, or uses, rail systems.

"With the pressure our members in the railroad industry have been under the last few years, it's nice to know that they've got a friend in the White House and a Congress willing to take a hard look at destructive practices like PSR," Stephenson said. "But just because we have friends in powerful places doesn't mean we can sit back and wait for them to act. This is our opportunity to make railroad jobs great again, and we're going to seize it."


President Joe Biden is a noted railroad enthusiast. The IBEW's Railroad branch members hope that some of his recently announced plans will help end corporate policies that have eliminated thousands of jobs across the industry.

Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Joe Biden