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American News Jan 17, 2022 8:43 AM EST

Train workers threaten to strike amid supply chain crunch

Train workers may move to strike after BNSF issued a new attendance policy, which union leaders called "the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier."

Train workers threaten to strike amid supply chain crunch
Ari Hoffman Seattle, WA

Train workers may move to strike after BNSF issued a new attendance policy, which union leaders called "the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier." If the strike proceeds it could be devastating to an already troubled supply chain in America.

Members of 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) who work for the BNSF Railway took steps on Wednesday that could lead to a strike in light of this new policy.

BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said the new "Hi-Viz" program, which would go into effect on Feb. 1 is overly restrictive and is similar to precision scheduled railroading practices.

According to a statement released Thursday from the unions, BNSF’s Hi-Viz attendance program "…repudiates numerous collectively bargained agreements currently in place throughout the BNSF system."

The unions describe the policy as a points-based system that penalizes employees for "...any time they take off work for practically any reason." The program is described as so restrictive that employees would be penalized for absences to attend the funeral of an immediate family member.

The unions also claim that the policy punished workers for sick time during the pandemic.

One union member who wanted to stay anonymous told The Post Millennial that BNSF furloughed workers at the beginning of the pandemic and has been slow to bring them back. Some were furloughed for over a year.

The member also said that those remaining were overworked due to the worker shortage and sometimes forced to work overtime "…11 days straight" or longer, leaving workers fatigued on heavy machinery.

Additionally, the union member claimed that they are routinely called without warning to work due to unreliable schedules which had the potential to create an "…even more unsafe railroad operation."

The unions said that BNSF developed the program to improve crew availability and remain competitive in the industry, and that BNSF described the goal of the program as incentivizing consistent and reliable attendance.

BNSF told FreightWaves in a statement: "BNSF team members drive the railroad’s success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without our employees. BNSF has not changed its attendance guidelines in more than 20 years. This week, 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."

The statement continued, "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. 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."

BLET and SMART-TD have begun the process of polling membership to decide if they should strike over the dispute, which they referred to as a "…withdrawal from service."

According to the unions, there are more than 17,000 active members of BLET and SMART-TD working at BNSF.

If a majority of the members vote to strike, per union code BLET’s national president and BLET’s general chairman need to approve a date to withdraw from service. SMART-TD, union leadership may authorize a strike if the general chairpersons obtain two- thirds majority approval from the local chairpersons.

According to their website, BNSF Railway is one of North America’s leading freight transportation companies, with a rail network of 32,500 route miles in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. BNSF is one of the top transporters of the products and materials that help feed, clothe, supply and power communities throughout America and the world. In 2020, BNSF hauled 1.1 million carloads of agricultural commodities and enough grain to supply 900 million people with a year’s supply of bread. BNSF transports enough wheat flour in a year to bake more than 23 billion dozens of cookies.

In 2020, BNSF moved more industrial product railcars than the population of Kansas, hauls enough asphalt to lay a single lane road two times around the equator.

The strike could also be catastrophic for the Biden administration. Last week, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CBS that he has made recruiting truck drivers, keeping trucks on the roads, and stocked shelves top priorities to aid the trucking industry which is stretched to the breaking point, which had a yearly turnover reaching 90 percent in parts of the industry.

Buttigieg told CBS regarding the trucking industry, "Oh, I'm very concerned about this, and it reflects the fact that as long as we go through phase after phase of this pandemic, we're seeing disruptions in supply."

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