Members of the IBEW and other unions with railroad-working members on the California High-Speed Rail project are enjoying enhanced labor protections thanks to a recent agreement.

Union workers including IBEW members are building — and will maintain — the first U.S. high-speed passenger rail line in California, and now they are assured protections under federal labor law.

This is after the IBEW and 12 other unions with members who work on U.S. railroads signed a memorandum of understanding with the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November.

"It's an important agreement because it ensures that our highly trained and highly qualified members will continue enjoying good pay and safe working conditions on this project," said Railroad Department Director Al Russo. "As the railroads continue to develop and expand cutting-edge technology, IBEW members are adapting to perform the kind of work that gets done right the first time and is implemented safely."

Under construction since 2018, the California network is billed as both the country's first electrified high-speed rail system and the largest public works project now underway in the U.S. it is being completed in segments, with about 119 miles now being built in the Central Valley region between Merced and Bakersfield.

In December, the project received a financial boost when President Joe Biden announced a $3 billion federal grant from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help cover construction costs. At the same time, the Brightline West project to link Los Angeles and Las Vegas by high-speed rail — using IBEW and other union labor — was also awarded a $3 billion grant.

The High-Speed Rail Labor Coalition, representing more than 160,000 workers on every type of rail system in the U.S., applauded the Nov. 17 agreement for spelling out that union workers in California will be covered by such "bedrock federal rail labor laws" as the Railway Labor Act.

"We are proud that this agreement guarantees our right to organize workers, including reasonable access to the jobsite for union organizing, and establishes a pathway to voluntary employer recognition of the union," the coalition said.

This agreement builds on an earlier project labor agreement between the authority and the building trades, committing to hire highly skilled union workers on the project's construction side and maintaining fair labor standards overall.

"This project already has helped create thousands of good-paying union jobs," Russo said. The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that more than 1,600 workers are being sent to the two dozen active construction sites each day, and that construction on the overall rail network has been responsible for the creation of more than 11,500 union-represented jobs.

Most of those workers are local. A 2013 community benefits agreement has helped nearly one out of every four jobs go to workers from disadvantaged communities across the Central Valley.

Russo said this new agreement should help bring in a lot more union workers to the project, with an estimated 3,000 permanent rail union workers ultimately needed to manage and support the system's locomotives, station stops and maintenance shops.

"Rail labor will be the ones that build and maintain equipment," Russo said. "Those will be good rail labor jobs."

Revenue service on this first system segment is projected to begin as early as 2030, with zero-emission passenger trains, fully powered by renewable energy, capable of traveling more than 200 miles per hour. Later segments are planned to connect the state's northern population centers in Sacramento and San Francisco to the southern metro areas of Los Angeles and San Diego, along with dozens of Central Valley destinations.

Russo cautioned that none of these labor wins should be taken for granted.

"It's no accident that we're in the middle of the biggest expansion of transportation and infrastructure in U.S. history. These historic investments in rail and good-paying union jobs could not have happened without Joe Biden, one of our most ardent boosters ever," he said. "I hope we continue to find innovative ways to keep improving on America's rail growth."

Joining the IBEW in the High Speed Rail Labor Coalition are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Mechanical and Engineering Department, the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers 32BJ/SEIU, the Transportation Communications Union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Transport Workers Union of America, the American Train Dispatchers Association, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Department, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

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