GALESBURG, Ill. — Union workers for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation are considering a strike after the company announced a new attendance policy set to take effect Feb. 1, but the railway has filed a lawsuit trying to prevent the strike.
Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth, Texas, heard arguments from the company and unions Monday morning, Jan. 25. He is expected to make a decision by Tuesday night whether or not to block the strike threated by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART-TD) unions.
A potential strike would affect 17,000 union workers.
Currently, workers do not have set days off. Instead workers said they were told to be available 75% of the time, including weekends and holidays. There are also allocated vacation days that range in amount based on how long the employees have worked there, and one worker explained there's a certain number of days they have to work in a year to qualify for vacation.
"Our job is not like the normal job," one employee told News 8. "Our only way to have time at home is to 'lay off.' We have no scheduled days off. This is the only way we have to be home for anything from a dentist appointment to a child's graduation or if we have COVID and are sick."
The new attendance policy, "Hi-Viz," gives employees a total of 30 points for the rest of their careers, but employees are docked points for days taken off outside of allocated vacation days.
Taking off Monday-Thursday docks two points, Friday-Saturday is four points, Sunday is three points and a holiday is seven points. BNSF considered holidays to be any high-impact days, one worker explained. They include typical holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, but also Super Bowl Sunday, Father's and Mother's Days and Valentine's Day.
"The Hi-Viz is a slap in the face of the worker," one worker told News 8. "The BNSF CEO talks about balancing work and family time, and this cuts the little bit of time we get with family down to one or two days a month for that time and penalized us for being home with our family for any holiday."
"We're not fighting about wages, we're not frustrated with our insurance, we're frustrated with the fact that we seem to just be getting less and less time off," said one BNSF engineer of 10 years. "Time off that we think that we need to maintain our own physical and mental well being."
He added that, under this new policy, workers will be expected to be available more than 90% of the time, as opposed to the current 75%.
The only way to earn points back is by working 14 days in a row. However, points can never exceed 30. If a worker were to drop below zero, he said there would be disciplinary action.
"If you do that three times, you get to zero. It's progressive discipline No. 1, 10 days off. Progressive discipline No. 2, 20 days off. Third progressive discipline could be termination," he said. "Each time you hit zero, you go back to 15 … You don't get your 30 points back."
In a joint statement SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET National President Dennis Pierce called Hi-Viz "the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier."
They further said the policy contradicts numerous collectively bargained agreements currently in place throughout the BNSF system, and it "may be the tipping point for what may be the ‘great railroad resignation.’”
“It also stands to take away any ability by our members to avoid working fatigued when they are routinely called without warning due to the complete lack of reliable train lineups, thus creating the potential for an even more unsafe railroad operation. So-called ‘forced overtime’ in an industry where safety is so critical not only repudiates our agreements, it stands to enact irreparable harm on hundreds of full-time employees whose non-workplace obligations prevent them from being at work every day of their life," the statement read.
"We're worried about crew fatigue, you talk about studies that are done with people that are tired, whose motor skills are that of someone that's been under the influence," the engineer said. "There's times that I find myself, I've been up 30 plus hours, and I'm not a spring chicken anymore, eventually that grows on you."
In a statement to News 8, BNSF said ta major work stoppage would drastically impact the nation's supply chain. This new Hi-Viz policy is the rail line's way of staying competitive, it said.
The statement reads in part:
"BNSF team members drive the railroad's success, and we couldn't deliver the nation's goods without our employees. BNSF announced a new system that is designed to provide employees with real-time information and greater flexibility, so they can make informed decisions about their work schedules. This policy update is consistent with practices across the transportation industry, while helping us safely and efficiently serve our customers and the communities that count on us."
BNSF said this is the first update to its attendance policy in 20 years, and this new system will give employees an easier way to see where they stand under the new rules.
The railway maintained that this is a minor dispute that workers wouldn't be able to strike over under federal law. The unions have tried to convince the judge it is a major dispute.
Based on Judge Pittman's ruling, workers could potential strike as soon as the policy takes effect Feb. 1. Or he could order the railway and unions to negotiate. Or he could decide the Hi-Viz policy is OK as it stands, a worker explained to News 8.
This worker said the unions have polled its members and an overwhelming majority of workers voted to go on strike.
"It's pretty close to 100%," he said. "Do we want to go on strike? No, but we definitely feel we have to. You know, at some point, you can only take so much before you have to fight back."
He added he doesn't want to be seen as dispensable to the railway anymore. He said workers are just asking for a little bit of compassion and empathy.
"We're not as replaceable as they think. Because as they get rid of us, or as we leave, there's not a lot of people standing in line for these jobs anymore. And they need to recognize that," he said. "There's just so many issues that are here. And the fact that we are roaring the loudest right now about this one needs to be recognized."
This all comes as contract talks between the biggest freight railroads, including BNSF, and unions that represent 105,000 employees are headed to mediation this week after more than two years of negotiations.
Contract talks began with the National Railway Labor Conference in fall 2019 include whether the railroads should be able to cut crews from two people down to one in some circumstances. Unions oppose the change partly because of safety concerns.
BNSF operates 32,500 miles of track in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. It runs an average of 1,200 trains per day, and it transports a mixture of agricultural, consumer and industrial products.