Amtrak Budget Cuts Amount to Derailed Priorities in Washington

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Larry Hanley, International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, says there has been a military junta in the United States since September 11th of 2001, and our national priorities have shifted primarily out of fear.

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In the wake of the deadly Amtrak speed-driven derailment crash this week killing eight people and injuring 200 or more, the nation is on alert about the reality of the deteriorating transportation infrastructure in this country. And yet the Republican-led Congress this week hours after the crash voted 30 to 21 in favor of reducing a grant to Amtrak by $252 million, a drop of about 15 percent from last year’s budget. The measure is still awaiting full House and Senate before it would be in effect in October. But in a strongly-worded press statement issued by the Amalgamated Transportation Union, the largest labor organization representing transit workers in the United States and Canada comprised of 190,000 members including 300 workers at Greyhound lines, registered their objections not only to the cuts, but to the state of deteriorating transportation in this country.

The press statement said our national priorities as set by Congress and the White House are incoherent. It questioned the squandering of the nation’s wealth in endless wars while allowing our people to be put at risk by failing, outdated transportation systems. With me to discuss our derailed priorities and transportation infrastructure in the country is the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Larry Hanley.

Larry, we are so pleased you could join us today.

LARRY HANLEY, INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT, AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION: It’s my pleasure, Sharmini. I’m glad to be with you.

PERIES: So Larry, the Amtrak disaster is a dire, sad opportunity to address attention to the deteriorating infrastructure. We now know that the Regional 188 was equipped with an automatic speed control system that would have prevented the derailment, but it was not activated due to budgetary shortfalls. I’m sure you are trying to make sense of the absurdity of the vote to cut the Amtrak budget this week. But budget cuts are not new. And I’m sure you have registered your discontent before all this had happened. Why is a call for better infrastructure and better funding of the national infrastructure falling on such deaf ears in Washington?

HANLEY: Well, I think because–well, one could argue that there has been a military junta here in the United States, in that since September 11th of 2001 our national priorities have shifted–primarily out of fear, not only the fear of what actually happened but the fear that our government officials constantly push out about what might happen if we don’t continue to be a country that lavishes money on armaments and on war. So what’s happened in Washington–and that may sound odd at first blush, but when you consider that any human service that can possibly help our people that obviously comes with a price tag is stalled in Congress because we have to figure out a way to pay for it. Social Security is at risk, and we have to figure out how we can get rid of it, according to not only Republicans but to Democrats.

But when it comes to building missiles to bomb caves in Afghanistan, nobody ever questions whether or not we can afford to do that. And we have spent $3 trillion since 2001 engaged in war that is not only financially unsustainable, but frankly morally unsustainable throughout the world. And while that’s happening, while those bombs are being dropped and destroying cities all over the world, we’re also destroying cities in America through neglect. And this is just another glaring example, certainly a dramatic one, of how America’s people, America’s infrastructure that supports our people, is being allowed to decay and crumble.

With the argument–you know, advanced primarily by the Republican party, but certainly not opposed by the Democratic party–that we simply can’t afford to have a country anymore, a country that serves its people. So that’s really–this is, this is a time for everybody to stand up and say, now here’s an exclamation point to what we’re not doing.

PERIES: Now Larry, this is also an opportunity to address the working conditions of workers in the sector. The transportation industry has been defunded for decades now, so the rights and conditions of workers are back in focus as a result of this sad incident. Give us some indication of what would have improved and what could be done to improve the conditions of workers in the sector.

HANLEY: Well not only the workers in the sector, but you know, there are obvious safety problems that exist and are growing in the transportation sector. Sometimes just simply because of the infrastructure, in this case the lack of advanced technology that is available, that if funded could have prevented these injuries and these deaths.

But also because of deregulation combined with globalization of the economy, workers in the transportation sector have suffered huge losses in their wages. They’ve lost their pensions in many cases. Their healthcare. We have–we have many thousands of workers in our union who qualified for assistance for food stamps, for Medicaid, even though they work full time, and sometimes more than full time. Shifts. And that is a crime that’s occurring every day and growing in America because of failed national policies and priorities.

PERIES: Now, I know the ATU has been previously teamed up with the environmental groups. I know during the big demonstration in September in New York you were one of the unions that really put your political and environmental hats on and said in order to move forward building a green economy, building public transportation was vitally important to curtailing and capping climate change, as well as you’ve taken some very progressive positions on the Keystone XL pipeline and the building of it. Although it would affect the work–people’s jobs, and so on. But your position is very good. And talk about the relationship between your efforts in terms of building infrastructure and building a green economy.

HANLEY: Well first, we believe what others have said, which is there will be no jobs on a dead planet. And therefore we think that the first priority ought to be preserving the environment we live in. and not just, obviously, the environment itself but also the political environment really needs a great deal of change. And we are completely supportive of our friends in the environmental community. In fact, we’re a part of it. Every person who drives a bus or a train makes a contribution in their daily work to greening not only the economy but the environment.

So we’re very conscious of that. Our members are, by the way, surprisingly conscious. I was actually very pleasantly surprised at the reaction from our rank and file in New York when we, and New Jersey, when we called upon them to join in the climate march. There were hundreds of our members that were very interested that came out that day. So I think that if you scratch below the surface you’ll find that American workers are aware of the fact that our climate is changing, that there are more tornadoes, more hurricanes, more severe weather, more snow. And we are trying to seize every opportunity we can to work with people who care about the environment.

PERIES: Now Larry, one of the challenges, of course, is how do we transition from a fossil fuel economy to a green economy without losing too many jobs? Because that’s what the mine workers in Pennsylvania are worried about. What do you say to them?

HANLEY: Well you know, the truth is that the mine workers have real, immediate concerns about what they’re going to be doing for their next paycheck. And we should be sensitive to that, and we have to find ways–and certainly there are. There are many industries that we could put in to replace coal mining and other ecologically harmful activities and jobs. We could build an economy, for example, we don’t build enough mass transit equipment. We build scarcely any of it in this country. And there could be jobs in–good-paying jobs in factories constructing them. We could also convert, by the way, our military war machine back to a peacetime economy and start building more infrastructure and more vehicles to get people out of cars and off the roads. There are many things we could do.

But the problem is that people don’t want to invest in that. The people who control our funds and the people who control our government actually just wind up pitting workers against workers, and making it appear that the only choice is you have to lose your job if we’re to have the ability for our grandchildren to breathe clean air. And that’s just not true. There are many ways we could convert.

PERIES: Larry, thank you so much for joining us today.

HANLEY: Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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