BY PENNYLYNN WEBB for palestineherald.com
Area residents are asked to band together with a group of current and retired railroad employees in a fight to keep Union Pacific Railroad in Palestine.
Harris Lohmeyer started a GoFundMe account seeking donations from the people of Palestine and Anderson County with the intent of hiring legal counsel to fight UP’s plans to shut down its freight car repair facility, also known as the Palestine Car Shop, by June 14.
“The citizens of Palestine and Anderson County have always been involved in the past agreements and lawsuits,” Lohmeyer said. “We need to do the same this time. The railroad has been a significant part of Palestine’s history for the past 150 years. Hopefully, we’re not the generation that allows it to disappear from our history.”
In six days the effort raised $25,350 of the $30,000 goal.
While Lohmeyer has been retired from the railroad for six years, he said he hired many of those still working at the Palestine Car Shop and feels an obligation to help them keep their jobs.
“When I hired them, I told them, ‘You’re not getting a job, you’re getting a career,” he said. “At that time, we didn’t lay anyone off, the jobs were secure and we were increasing our employment base. Palestine was always served as the pilot group for all the programs the railroad had because of our safety success and things like that.”
Lohmeyer said he believes the root of the issue with the railroad is corporate greed.
“Hedge funds have come in and all they are interested in is that stock price,” he said. “The only way to raise the stock price is to lower the operating ratio. And the only way to lower the operating ratio is cut people.”
While Lohmeyer is leading the charge, he said he believes the community needs to be involved in helping to retain these jobs for prosperity reasons.
“These families are going to lose their income, insurance and retirements,” he said. “And our community is going to lose over $6 to $10 million a year in salaries, and that’s not just for this year. Those jobs won’t come back. That’s $6 to $10 million for perpetuity. That’s a lot of local support that will no longer be available when you consider each dollar spent in retail is turned over an estimated seven times in the community.”
Union Pacific Railroad met with Palestine staff April 15 and told them they have 60 days until the Palestine Car Facility closes. Lohmeyer believes this announcement was made as the result of a recent federal court ruling in Tyler that nullified the 1954 agreement between then Missouri Pacific Railroad and the city of Palestine, Anderson County and its citizens. Through that agreement, UP was required to maintain a certain number of employees from various crafts in Palestine as long as the railroad runs through the city.
Union Pacific said in a statement it has been accelerating its continuous improvement plan and implementing Precision Scheduled Railroading principles undertaking operational changes across its system. One of those operational changes is the closing of its Main Car Repair Facility in Palestine.
The closure of the Palestine Car Repair Facility will result in the abolishment of as many as 57 positions.
The company said affected employees will have the right to bid and bump for other position within UP, however these are done in accordance with seniority rights. All employees who are unable to obtain a position and who are laid off, will be paid all wages and agreed upon fringe benefits for 60 days after April 15.
Lohmeyer explained that the original contract, the 1954 agreement is based upon, with the city and the railroad, dates back to the late 1800s when the city of Palestine, Anderson County and its citizens gave the IG&N Railroad $150,000, plus land grants, for them to use as equity to borrow money. That money was used to bring the railroad into Palestine by laying trackage, building headquarters and constructing freight car/locomotive repair facilities, as well as lodging/homes for its executives.
In return, the people of Palestine had the railroad go into agreement with a contract that said they would employee a certain percentage of certain groups of rail employees in Palestine, for as long as the railroad runs through town.
Lohmeyer said, the contract also went as far to say that any successors of the IG&N would be bound by that same agreement, for as long as their tracks run through Palestine.
This agreement has been taken all the way to the Supreme Court twice since then, first by the IG&N and secondly by the Missouri Pacific, with the city, county and its citizens prevailing both times.
At present, Union Pacific must employ 0.52% of its office and shop employees in Palestine, which according to the 1954 Agreement, includes the following classifications: executives, officials, and staff assistants; professional, clerical, and general; maintenance of equipment and stores; transportation, other than train, engine and yard; and transportation, yardmasters, switch tenders, and hostlers.
In the current lawsuit, the city does not assert that Union Pacific has breached the 1954 Agreement. Instead, Union Pacific alleges that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 preempts the 1954 Agreement and asked the court to void its obligations to Palestine.
Under this system, federal law supersedes conflicting state laws. Thus, any state law that conflicts with the Constitution or a federal law is preempted, or without effect.
Based on the plain language of the ICCTA, the Court determined that the 1954 Agreement between the city and the railroad is expressly preempted.
The Court stated that state law can be preempted if it has the effect of unreasonably burdening or interfering with rail transportation and determined that Union Pacific presented substantial, undisputed evidence that effect.
“By requiring the railroad perpetually to maintain office and shop employees in Palestine, despite the railroad’s need to adapt in a competitive and rapidly changing market, the agreement substantially interferes with and burdens Union Pacific’s facilities related to the movement of passengers or property,” stated the ruling.
While the city of Palestine and Anderson County will appeal the federal judge’s ruling, Mayor Steve Presley has urged local residents to join together and file for an injunction in state or federal court with regard to this new action by UP.
County Judge Robert Johnston looks for the appeal process to take approximately two years.
This case has not yet gone to trial.
The GoFundMe account, Citizens For Keeping Palestine Railroad Jobs, can be found online at www.gofundme.com/f/citizens-for-keeping-palestine-railroad-jobs?qid=552a49ea4644bb737f6fde2ea81030d0.