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BNSF Rail Awaits Hearing as Threat of Strike Looms

A hearing in Texas Federal court Monday could determine whether a possible strike taking out more than half of BNSF Railway Co.’s workforce can move forward in what could pose yet another assault on the nation’s fragile supply chain.

BNSF Rail’s lawsuit against the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD)  and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) aims to block any possible work stoppage, as unions push back on the rollout of a new attendance policy.

A strike could involve more than 17,000 workers, equating to more than half of BNSF’s more than 30,000-employee base.

BNSF asked a judge this week to grant a temporary restraining order against a strike, which it said could happen as soon as Jan. 26, according to court documents.

A strike “could shut down BNSF’s operations, deprive shippers of transportation, deprive BNSF of the use of its tracks, facilities and revenues, threaten the safety or well-being of the general public and put other BNSF employees out of work for the duration of the strike,” attorneys for the rail company said in a court filing.

They went further to say, given the company’s size, measures taken by the unions could impact other railroads in the country.

The discord comes as supply chain companies scramble to shore up labor shortages resulting from the omicron variant of Covid-19. Workers testing positive with Covid are just one challenge in an environment already fraught with friction stemming from goods movement congestion.

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Some 800 dockworkers were out with Covid last week at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, trimming about 10 percent of the ports’ daily employee headcount.

Worker strife is causing further volatility. This week XPO Logistics Inc. California truck drivers in Commerce and San Diego said they are challenging their classification as independent contractors and are looking to unionize.

The BNSF conflict is the result of an update to its attendance policy for workers, which was introduced this month and set to go into effect Feb. 1.

The new policy called High Visibility, or Hi Viz for short, assigns points to the types of work days an employee misses. In other words, a missed weekend shift or holiday has an assigned point value. Each employee has a bank of points that will see deductions with each missed day of work until a zero balance results in disciplinary action.

BNSF contends in its lawsuit the new policy makes it easier for employees to see an impending disciplinary action.

The unions disagree.

“This unprecedented BNSF policy repudiates direct and clear contract language and, in application, will attempt to force our members to report for duty without regard for their medical condition as we struggle to come out of a pandemic,” the groups’ presidents said in a joint statement released this month.

The unions argue more predictable scheduling instead of what they called “forced overtime,” would help reduce the call-outs they said BNSF’s new policy aims to address.

If the judge in this case determines the attendance policy change to be “minor” under the federal Railway Labor Act, then the matter gets sent to arbitration or negotiation. The unions are arguing the matter is “major,” which would pave the way for a strike action if approved by members and the leadership.