BNSF Railway worker strike could cause more shortages. A judge in Fort Worth will decide

·3 min read
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

A federal court in Fort Worth will decide Tuesday whether to block a threatened Feb. 1 strike by two unions representing BNSF Railway conductors and engineers.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) have threatened to strike over a new attendance policy they say will penalize workers for missing work.

The Fort Worth-based railway said the policy is needed to ensure workers are available, and it would be put at a competitive disadvantage without it. A lawyer representing BNSF also disputed in court Monday the unions’ claim that the new policy punishes workers for taking sick leave.

“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” said U.S. District Court Judge Mark Pittman during a hearing Monday, noting the supply chain issues that have resulted in shortages for retailers and industry across America.

Lawyers for BNSF also picked up on the potential supply chain impacts, saying a strike would not just hurt the railroad, but also the businesses that depend on trains to ship goods across the country.

The new attendance policy sets up a point system where conductors and engineers are docked for taking time off of work. Workers can earn points back by being on call to work for 14 days in a row. Taking any time off during those 14 days would reset that window.

The policy replaces a system where workers are allowed to take off five weekdays and two weekend days a month. Conductors and engineers are expected to be available to work 24/7, other than those seven days.

Jury duty or a doctor appointment would mean workers get docked, said Chris Bond, chairperson of local SMART-TD chapter. Bond said the railroad is trying to do more with less by penalizing workers for taking time off.

BNSF disputed that characterization in a statement to the Star-Telegram, saying the new policy gives workers more real-time information and flexibility to make decisions about their schedules.

“We feel the implementation of this new attendance program is permitted by long-standing past practice, the express and implied terms of our agreements with our unions, arbitral authority, and legal precedent. Therefore, we are asking a federal court to classify our disagreement with the unions over the implementation of this new program as something we can work together to resolve without striking,” the statement read.

The current policy is already putting a strain on families, and the new one would make it worse, said Christy Freeman, whose husband has worked for BNSF for eight years. Freeman said her family has gotten used to her husband being home an average of only 20 hours a week.

She said it’s difficult on her two young children who can’t comprehend why their father is gone so long. Her husband will tell them he has to go to work to make sure the family has food and pay bills.

“But then our 5-year-old came up to him and said, ‘Daddy, I won’t eat today if you stay home from work,’” Freeman said.

Pittman, the federal judge, noted BNSF’s policy may run afoul of the Family Medical Leave Act by docking points from workers caring for loved ones.

A lawyer for BNSF said the current collective bargaining agreement allows the union and the railroad to settle that issue in arbitration. He said if the strike is allowed to go forward or the new policy is delayed, BNSF will take a financial hit that it won’t be able to recover in arbitration.

The new policy is supposed to go into effect Feb. 1. The unions have threatened to strike to prevent its implementation.

BNSF has sued to prevent the unions from striking, saying it would cause wide-ranging impacts to the economy. The company argued in court that the dispute over the new attendance system is “minor,” which is a legal distinction that would make it illegal for the union to strike.

Pittman said he expects to rule on the case by 5 p.m. Tuesday.