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Name: Szabo, Joe
Current Position: Former Administrator

Joe Szabo, the first union official ever to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), was confirmed on April 29, 2009. Until his appointment, he worked since the mid-1990s as the top lobbyist in Illinois for the nation’s largest railroad workers union. He also has ties to Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Democratic governor of Illinois who was impeached because of accusations of corruption and influence peddling.

A fifth-generation railroader whose ancestors worked for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, as well as the Wabash and Illinois Central (IC) Railroads, Szabo, 51, was first introduced to the railroads by his father, who worked as an IC switchman and a union officer for 14 years. While still in high school, he helped his dad with his bookkeeping work as secretary/treasurer of Local 1299 of the United Transportation Union (UTU), the nation’s largest railroad union.
Szabo’s first railroad job was with the IC in 1976, where he worked as a yard switchman, road trainman and commuter passenger conductor. He then became an employee of Metra when IC sold its Commuter Division in 1987.
In 1984, he followed in his father’s footsteps by winning election as secretary/treasurer of UTU Local 1290. Szabo later progressed to become Local 1290’s delegate and legislative representative, eventually winning election as vice chairman of the UTU Illinois Legislative Board in 1991. During this same time period, he earned his bachelor’s degree in labor relations from Governors State University in 1990.
In February 1996 he became state legislative director for UTU, making him the union’s top lobbyist in Illinois. In October 2006 he was appointed a vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, and in October 2008 was elected to a full four-year term, while still remaining as state legislative director.
From January 15, 2009, until his confirmation as head of the FRA three months later, Szabo was on interim assignment to UTU’s National Legislative Office in Washington, DC, serving as Alternate National Legislative Director, following the death of the union’s top federal lobbyist.
Under Szabo the UTU in Illinois wrestled with Canadian National Railway over hours-of-service rules, and Iowa Interstate Railroad over who could run a locomotive on its main line. At other times, the union battled Norfolk Southern Railway, Indiana Harbor Belt Railway, BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad and Alton & Southern Railway.
Parallel with his union work, Szabo has been active in local government in the Chicago suburb of Riverdale, home to several large rail operations, serving 10 years as a Village Trustee before becoming mayor from 1997-2000. He also served as a member of the South Suburban Mayors Transportation Committee and vice chairman of the Chicago Area Transportation Study’s Executive Committee.
Following the 2002 gubernatorial election of Rod Blagojevich (D), Szabo co-chaired the Freight Rail Subcommittee of the new governor’s transition team. In 2005, Szabo was assigned by the UTU International to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, where he participated in the drafting of rail-safety regulations.
In addition, he held an advisory position on the State of Illinois Growth Task Force, and served on the Executive Council of Chicago Metropolis 2020, as a member of Business Leaders for Transportation, and as a member of the legislative advisory committee for the Metropolitan Planning Council.
It’s no surprise that Szabo was tabbed by Obama to join his administration. In addition to being a well-known lobbyist in Illinois, Szabo made sure UTU members walked precincts in support of the President’s 2008 campaign.
Obama Taps Joe Szabo to Head FRA (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen)
Rails See Safety Switch (by John D. Boyd, Journal of Commerce Magazine)
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