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BNSF workers react to judge's decision to temporarily block strike

A federal judge sided with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and said a strike of 17,000 union workers would "exacerbate our current supply chain crisis."

GALESBURG, Ill. — A federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, has granted the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation a temporary restraining order that blocks 17,000 union workers in Galesburg and across the country from going on strike. 

Workers with 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 voiced their disapproval of a new attendance policy

Under the new "Hi-Viz" points-based policy set to take effect Feb. 1, all workers would be given 30 points for the rest of their careers and will be docked points for days taken off, anywhere from two to seven points. The only way to earn points back is by working 14 days straight.

Workers told News 8 that they already have no assigned days off in many cases. Instead, they've been told to be available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Faced with employee disapproval, BNSF argued a strike would have a drastic impact on the nation's supply chain, and U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman agreed with the railway.

RELATED: Judge grants BNSF temporary restraining order, blocking 17,000 workers from striking over new attendance policy

In his ruling, Pittman wrote, "The record further establishes that a strike would exacerbate our current supply-chain crisis—harming the public at large, not just BNSF. A temporary restraining order will thus serve, rather than disserve, the public interest. Accordingly, the Court concludes that granting a temporary restraining order is appropriate." 

The temporary restraining order will expire Feb. 8, unless otherwise stated by the Court. Additional proceedings will be scheduled, according to court documents. 

In a statement to News 8, BNSF said it was "pleased" with the court's ruling. 

"...Today's ruling allows us to move forward working together with our employees to do what we do best in providing service that is essential to our customers and the American economy. BNSF's new system will provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability, which is essential to meeting our customers' expectations and the demands posed by an increasingly competitive global supply chain. Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work. We continue to take employee feedback on the program and that feedback is being reviewed. BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn't deliver the nation's goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but working together with our employees, we believe we can adapt to meet today's competitive freight environment."

One worker told News 8 the main feeling right now among workers was outrage. 

"I think it's a bad judgement," a 15-year BNSF employee said. "BNSF tells people we get rest days, but if they need someone to run a train, they will force us off our rest days, which happens all the time."

Another who's been an engineer for 10 years said he was "disappointed but not surprised."

"You don't put a lot of hope in the system, but you hope that the system does what it's supposed to," he said. "I don't want to say it is what it is because you want to maintain the fight."

Several workers said they want to quit and are looking for new jobs after hearing the Court's decision. 

"I can tell you many are thinking about resigning," one said. "Including myself, and I have worked for them 12 years."

"I put a date in my head, and it's got a 2022 year on it that I'd like to be out of here by," the engineer said. "Especially at my age, you know, I'm 50, starting over is not as solid … It's definitely stressful, and it's definitely something that a lot of us are going to have to be willing to do."

In a joint statement from SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET National President Dennis Pierce on Jan. 13, both predicted workers would resign because of the new policy.

"Our membership is tired, frustrated and fed up with the treatment they continue to receive," the statement said. "As is the growing trend among all major rail carriers, the working conditions at BNSF have deteriorated to the point that there are many tenured employees leaving the railroad industry because they can no longer tolerate the treatment that they must endure on a daily basis. This new attendance policy may be the tipping point for what may be the 'great railroad resignation.'"

The engineer explained how the time commitment was no secret when he started this job, but now, he said it's just too much. He said one of the most frustrating things was how the railway saw workers as dispensable.

"It's not something you can hire tomorrow and have somebody ready to go the next day," he said. "So that's where we feel like we're getting a little bit of the shaft here. We're being treated as unskilled labor."

Multiple workers told News 8 they thought BNSF wants workers to quit. 

BNSF is one of the freight railroads included in contract talks that began in fall 2019 and still haven't been agreed upon. One of the most contentious points in those negotiations is the railroads desire to cut crews from two people down to one in some circumstances. Unions oppose the change partly because of safety concerns.

"Then (BNSF) can try to push through the one man crew deal, saying that there's not enough workers to run with two crew members," one employee said. 

"That is 100% what they're doing," the engineer said. "They are expecting 3,500 people to quit or be fired this year because of this new high visibility policy … So what they want is one-man crews. And that's what everything is kind of lining up to be. One thing I will say is I will not work on a train by myself."

BNSF has around 30,000 employees and 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. Products shipped include steel, crude oil, ethanol, lumber, sugar, cars, chemicals, wheat, corn and soybeans.

It hauled 4.1 million carloads of industrial products and agricultural commodities in 2020, according to the company.

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