Railroad union strike stalled, for now

Ray Brenson has been working for the railroad for almost five years. When he signed up, he knew what he was in for.

“I truly love my job. I have progressed through where I am now going to become an engineer next month. I took this job knowing it would be different from any other, and was ready for the long days, the time away and nature of being on-call all the time,” said Brenson.

Brian Cathey has worked in the railroad industry for 10-years and he has been a union representative for SMART Transportation Division for almost three years.

“Some of my guys have been 30 to 48 hours in a hotel room. 12 to 14 or even 16 hours on a train coming home, and they’re expected to turn and go back to work, ten hours after being at home.” said Cathey.

The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the locomotive industry and the supply chain.

“It has impacted my family, as it has on all Americans, but it was hard,” said Brenson. “The constant changes and inconsistent response made it worse. But, like everyone else I work with here, we are considered essential, so we worked through. I think maybe even more than I have in my entire career thus far.”

On Jan, 10, BNSF Railway officially announced a new attendance point system that would go into effect on Feb. 1.

“Those points are deducted from an initial 30 point threshold that never resets itself. They provide some provisions to earn points back, but it’s virtually impossible to do so, because if you take any time off whether it’s contractually allowed or legally allowed by the the Family Medical Leave Act or the Railroad Labor Act, they actually keep you from being able to earn those points back,” said Cathey.

The union rep describes this new policy as “inhumane.” Cathey states that the union’s concerns are is the impact on mental health, safety, and fatigue.

“We are honestly being railroaded,” stated Cathey.

Brenson says that, “It takes no extenuating factors into account, such as hours or even days spent away from home in a motel waiting on a train to arrive for you to bring home. Life events and illnesses occur, simply are assessed the points we move on. It is literally us being a number and a statistic rather than an actual person who experiences life. It would make family life impossible.”

Cathey states that a majority of the workers share Brenson’s reaction to the attendance policy. What they want is for BNSF to sit down with the union and work towards amending the policy.

“This really is about having fair equitable work practices, good working conditions, where you can have some semblance of a family life without the mental health challenges that come along with being away from home,” said Brenson.

The union has been polling union members on whether to go on strike or not. Cathey said almost 100% are willing to strike. Cathey also added that ultimately the workers hope it won’t have to come to that. The union knows that a strike would definitely impact the supply train and anything that ships by rail.

“We really hope that the railroad takes a step back and starts listening to the union leaders that are in charge of not only our safety, but our agreement negotiations,” said Cathey “There’s a lot of hard working people that want to do this job, but it’s becoming unsustainable.”

Cathey explains that it really comes down to the Railroad Labor Act and whether or not this is deemed a major dispute under that law.

BNSF and the railroad unions are now arguing the policy out in court. The policy is still scheduled to go into effect on Feb. 1. The union and BNSF’s next court date is on Feb. 7.

According to Cathey, the unions have advised all members to comply. For now, the unions will not strike.

“Hopefully, BNSF comes to their senses and comes to the table. We want them to look at us more as people rather than numbers. Whether the [strike] happens, that’s up to our international leadership as they go forward with the process and the legal system as we go forward,” said Cathey.