New York, NY – Dean Devita is President, National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO), 32BJ, SEIU. He became President of the NCFO on October 1, 2020. He also serves as Vice President of SEIU 32BJ.
Among many other distinguished positions Devita has held, he previously served as Secretary-Treasurer of the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers District of Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union from 2011 – 2020. He also served as the Director of Commuter/Passenger Railroads. He was Vice Chairman of the LIRR Labor Council and continues to serve as the Labor Representative of the LIRR Board of Pensions and Legislative Chairperson. In 1997, Devita was elected as Chairman of the LIRR Non-Operating Unions Health and Welfare Fund. He will begin serving as a trustee of the National Railroad Retirement Investment Trust in January 2024.
Devita plays a critical role within the railroad industry and has taken a lead in the pre-planning of high-speed rail systems throughout the USA. He serves on the prestigious U.S. High-Speed Rail Coalition Executive Committee charged with exploring the feasibility of radically upgrading transportation systems throughout the country. The high-speed rail systems will not only improve methods of travel but also provide for thousands of good paying jobs. NCFO President Dean Devita is a hero as he looks toward the future of transportation for Americans and full employment for his union members.
LaborPress was able to find out more from Devita about himself, his union, and critical issues facing his members and the rail system right now.
LP: What initially inspired you to begin your union career?
DD: I wanted to assist in the daily work life of the members of the NCFO.
LP: Did you come from a union family?
DD: I grew up in Flushing New York in the shadows of IBEW Local 3, so you quickly understand what a union provides in your neighborhood. My brother was a member of the IBEW, and he received his education and learned his trade from the union, which provided him an opportunity to have a successful career and support his family.
LP: How many members are in your union? What are some of the major jobs/titles and industries in which they are employed?
DD: NCFO has 6,000 members and 32BJ has 180,000 members, SEIU has approximately 2 million members. We have hundreds of job titles, but we have members employed in Railroads, Higher Education, Schools, and many other industries. The NCFO has members in 46 states.
LP: What are the greatest challenges to the union currently?
DD: Anti-labor politicians who pass anti-labor laws and the courts who support laws that harm the American worker. The greatest asset that America can offer is the American worker – they should never be harmed.
LP: What do you consider major victories that occurred under your leadership? How were these victories accomplished?
DD: In my career, I have seen a lot of victories and heartbreaks. In 2021, all of rail labor lobbied for the Railroad Retirement Survivors Act of 2001, which reduced the age requirement to 30 years of service at age 60.
We have been successful in bargaining pension plans for our members.
We had some tough rounds of bargaining, but we always enjoyed improvements in the majority of our agreements. This last National Freight Agreement, we secured the largest wage increases in 48 years, while improving healthcare for autism and hearing. If this agreement provides one child with a normal life, that alone is worth more than the entire value of the entire agreement, this is what unions do.
This last Amtrak Agreement, NCFO Assistant to the President Mike Pistone bargained the largest wage increase in the history of Amtrak and increased time off, which is a major value to our members’ quality of life.
None of these victories comes from any one person. In the case of Railroad Retirement, it came from strong leaders of the union, lobbying, working closely with every union. We are stronger when we are together.
The agreements for the pensions, lobbying, hiring the best actuary firms in the nation, also having attorneys who don’t view the union as a client, but have a connection and love for the union.
The trains don’t run on rails, they run on money, our members’ monthly dues must be invested in the best partners to assist us to make the best possible agreements for our members.
LP: What are your most important goals for the union and membership, looking towards the future?
DD: We need politicians to respect American workers and stop passing anti-worker laws and pass laws that will benefit America’s greatest asset.
The NCFO is looking decades ahead. We may have learned this from 32BJ, but we believe in being ahead of the curve, on technology and the needs of the American people and our entire Nation.
LP: High-speed rail is critical in importance to reducing our carbon footprint and a greener America. What has been accomplished already and what needs to be done? How do you see advocacy and lobbying playing a part?
DD: Trains are the best friend to the environment, high-speed trains for areas like the Northeast, Chicago and California are needed. I read a report that said New Yorkers have the longest commute time, I believe 59 minutes, and I found that laughable. I believe it is much longer. We need to get cars off the roads and people on trains.
Airports are not the answer, there is more congestion in the skies now than ever, you can’t build more airspace and if you could the roads to get the people to the airports can’t handle the traffic and the airports can’t support parking of those cars.
Amtrak Acela may hold 386 passengers from Boston to Washington DC, many of the passengers will change someplace and others will board. But to be fair, the new Acela will operate every 30 minutes, running 20 train sets per day. That is 7,720 cars that may be off the road per day.
One new high-speed rail line that will be built if funding is available, which I believe it will be, will run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and in each station it would service, a major investment will be built around the station. We will have new green office buildings built, doctors’ offices, schools, hospitals, green housing, and many small businesses. In Miami a new Brightline Station has been built and now a $3 billion dollar investment is being built around that station.
LP: How has the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law affected high-speed rail possibilities?
DD: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law presents a game-changing opportunity for American high-speed rail. With $100 billion in advanced appropriations and authorized funding for passenger rail, the bill includes at least $76 billion in competitive grant programs for which high-speed rail projects are eligible to compete.
Implementation of the law is ramping up, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is beginning to distribute billions in grants to transportation projects across the country. On December 7, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) solicited applications for the Federal-State Partnership Program, which includes $12 billion in funding opportunities for high-speed rail projects.
After years of starts and stops, this is the best opportunity in over a decade to secure enough federal funding to begin operations on a set of initial systems that showcase the benefits of high-speed rail to the American people. Two key projects are vying for multi-billion-dollar federal grants:
Brightline West, a high-speed line running 218 miles between Las Vegas and Southern California, is seeking $3 billion in funds from the Federal-State Partnership Program to supplement private funding for the project. Expected to break ground in 2023, Brightline West has secured the necessary right-of-way along the I-15 corridor and is expected to fully environmentally clear the project by March 31. If the federal funds are secured, the line is projected to be up and running by 2026.
Meanwhile, the California High-Speed Rail project is applying for $8 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to complete a 171-mile inaugural operating segment between Merced and Bakersfield by 2030 — the first step toward the completion of the 500-mile Los Angeles to San Francisco line. With the segment now in various phases of construction, the nation’s first electrified 220 mph high-speed system has fresh momentum following a major victory in June, when the California legislature approved $4.2 billion to continue construction in the state’s Central Valley.
High-speed rail is a Biden Administration priority, with USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg telling Congressional committees he plans to use funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to demonstrate high-speed rail in “2 or 3 geographies.” That said, there will be heavy competition for passenger rail funds in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, given President Biden’s strong support for Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor, as well as the excitement about passenger rail around the country.
A major advocacy campaign is needed to persuade the Biden Administration to provide the robust funding needed to complete these two promising demonstration projects – and to launch a broader national high-speed rail strategy. The NCFO and the U.S. High-Speed Rail Coalition will lead this campaign over the next 6 months and convene the American high-speed rail industry to ensure that we don’t miss this golden opportunity.
The U.S. High-Speed Rail Coalition mobilizes leading unions, companies, and public servants to advocate for investments and policies that will finally make high-speed rail a reality in America.
We use a wide array of advocacy tools to persuade policy makers to prioritize high-speed rail. Launched by the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association in response to the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Decade, the Coalition’s advocacy campaigns build upon the Association’s ongoing work to promote the benefits of high-speed rail.
Co-chaired by former USDOT Secretaries Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx as well as California High Speed Rail Authority Chair Emeritus Rod Diridon, the Coalition has played an instrumental role in creating this unique moment of opportunity for American high-speed rail.
The Coalition works with our 30 member organizations and several nationally recognized political consultants to persuade policymakers to fund high-speed rail. In addition to direct lobbying, we deploy an array of tactics, including paid digital ads, organic social media, earned media programs, patch-through calls, sign-on letters, and more.
On February 2, 2023, the NCFO signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Brightline West. Because of my confidence and the support of our officers and members, we agreed to support Brightline West’s construction of rail lines, if Brightline obtains a grant or grants from the federal government, or federal and state governments combined, that equal $3 billion. The NCFO has agreed to lobby for these funds. If we are successful, Brightline West will require that for any contractor who will operate the line, the NCFO will have the right to organize them, and they will be covered under Railroad Retirement, Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act and a Carrier under the Railway Labor Act.